Video Games for the Narrative

You guys, I get so excited about video games.

No, really, games are very exciting.  I might not be one of those people who’s totally behind the gamification movement (I think a lot of it is really, really cool, except when it’s suddenly not), and I’m not convinced that the game will replace non-interactive media entirely (though I like the idea of transmedia storytelling), but I really do get excited over video games – how they work, how they integrate gameplay and narrative, how they allow the interactive elements to alter the experience from playthrough to playthrough … particularly how player choice and player input shapes the medium.

That’s the bit that really fascinates me – the player input.  It’s alright to do in tabletop RPGs, but the Game Master is infinitely flexible, unlike the code on a computer.  A player can really surprise me as a GM, and all I have to do is fix my notes and keep going, with maybe a slightly different plot.

A video game can’t do that – it can’t suddenly change the plot because a player never talked to a certain person, or killed someone they shouldn’t have, or just decided to go to the wrong town first.  Unless, of course, this was written into the game to begin with.

But that’s an entirely different blog post, and one I’m definitely not yet qualified to write.
This blog post is about personal preference, and why I feel a little bad about my choice in video games.

I do consider myself a writer, even if I’m not published.  I love the feeling of agency in games, the idea that I’m really affecting things in the game world as I play.

And yet, here’s a list of some of my favourite games:
Psychonauts.
Mass Effect.
King’s Quest series
Quest for Glory Series
Bioshock trilogy
Portals 1 and 2

I have played some Skyrim, but it doesn’t really make me stop everything and just play Skyrim like Mass Effect did.
I’ve also played FTL: Faster Than Light, and it didn’t really appeal to me, either.

I’ve been told by friends that they got really into their FTL characters, even though there are no real characters, no personality – it’s just a group of icons on a ship with stats.  Though the characters themselves had no lines and no backstories, my friends assigned personalities and goals to them, and were genuinely sad when they were painfully suffocated aboard their own ships.

Same thing with a lot of those kinds of games, I find – I don’t assign personalities to icons on a ship.  Skyrim is certainly easier – I am fairly able to care about the character I’m playing, generate motivations for them, all that sort of thing.
But I don’t get captivated by them.  Particularly with Skyrim – it really does just put you in a world and tell you to go from there.  I have a couple other issues with Skyrim, which I’ll address later (and for which you’ll have to bear with me, because I have only played for about an hour, total, and not very far into the game.

And I think it’s really a shame – I feel like I’m really missing out on a lot not liking some of these sandbox/open-world games.  I watched a friend play Skyrim once, and he killed a wolf, then jumped into a river carrying it, and the game happened to process this in such a way that he was, suddenly, waltzing with the wolf through the river.
I’d like to see Commander Shepard waltz with a wolf just because the player happened to feel like it.
I feel like there is, objectively, a depth of experience that you wouldn’t get in a linear story.  You certainly get the idea of a whole world, one that doesn’t all care about the plot of the game, and doesn’t entirely hinge on the protagonist.  It’s a great thing, and really exciting for anyone interested in the worldbuilding aspects of story.

But like I said, it just didn’t grab me.
Is that a bad thing, I wonder?  I’m an author, after all, isn’t creating stories what I’m supposed to be good at?  Am I too lazy to make up a “proper story” in these games?  Am I not willing to work for my fun?
Am I just unwilling to abandon my grounding in novels?  Is my brain too feeble to comprehend media that fall outside my limited view?

I’d like to think not.  So here’s how I justify this to myself.

First off, I like characters.  I like getting to play with new people.  I like getting inside their heads and meeting them over the course of a game.  I just don’t get that same experience when I’m the one assigning personality traits.  I can’t be surprised, for one, and one of my favourite experiences in a book or game is having my expectations subverted by a character.
Secondly, if there isn’t a true goal or a sense of character motivation, there’s no sense of urgency.  I’m not saying that the universe has to be in grave danger before I start to care (and there are some issues with this description, since Chell in Portal 1 can’t be said to have much motivation – though the player has ‘find out what’s up with these tests).  But mostly it holds – if Skyrim tells me there are dragons, but then leaves me alone in the mountains to do whatever, without ever giving me a reason that the dragons are my problem, or my issue – if FTL tells me “get a bigger ship” … well, sure, it’ll be diverting, but you’re never going to make me feel as hard as Mass Effect 2 made me feel when Joker did that thing that he did, or … “I am the very model …”.  I’ve yet to, in my time watching Skyrim or Minecraft, or talking to people who have played those games, seen any talk or mention of a Bioshock-level kick in the teeth.  They might have ups and downs, but impact in a narrative relies very heavily on timing, and removing the ability to time (and even the abillity to control what order a player receives information, in games like Skyrim) removes a whole lot of narrative tricks you can pull.

But here’s the main problem, for me.  I often find that an open game world feels a lot less real to me, because of the concessions the developers are forced to make to keep it open.  It’s just a matter of budget and time.  The variation you get in a game like Skyrim is admirable – you can annoy groups of characters and ingratiate yourself to others.  But it still feels very potted.  All elves hate you, or all people of a certain town.  You get a change of dialogue tree when you complete a person’s mission, but otherwise they offer you pretty much the same thing.  You can talk to every NPC, but you can’t really get to know them beyond a few broad character brush strokes.
You also can’t let the world change too much.  You can’t have a particular quest irrevocably change things on a grand scale, in case it’s one of the first ones the characters do, by accident, and they lose a lot of content.
Actually, that is entirely possible and pretty awesome, but it’s probably pretty bad design, and I’m too inexperienced to know why.  I’ve not really seen it.
On the technical side, try developing a motif or symbolism without being able to control the order the player experiences something in, or while allowing that any part of the whole thing may be skipped.  I’m sure it can be done (and I’d love to try someday), but you just can’t achieve the same effect.

I realise that, for all of the things I’ve said here, there are technicalities that can be argued.  I’m sure that, in open world games, you could show me a whole bunch with a “point of no return” section where you complete a quest and everything is changed.  I’m sure you could show me ones with intelligent NPC development, and a plot that holds up through any amount of faffing around between plot points.  Unfortunately, it’s not really going to change my mind.  There’s just something that doesn’t grab me so much about an open world to explore in as a really gripping, dense story with crafted characters and symbolism.

What about you fine folks?  Any staunch open-world fans out there?  Got one to recommend that’ll completely change my mind, make me see the potential of the medium?  Anyone dislike open-world games, but for a completely different reason?

And yeah, I’m not going to even try and pretend that was all intelligent and objective.  But hey, expressing personal preference is a difficult thing to articulate.

2 thoughts on “Video Games for the Narrative

  1. I’m almost entirely about the open-world stuff, but only if well-crafted. There are open-world games where there’s a reasonable set of characters, and certainly much potential (my favourite example is, alas, somewhat lacking in a few of the aspects, but it’s got a nugget of potential that I find fascinating). I often find the linear-story games too confining, dating all the way back to the old Sierra games, where you must rub object A against object B at the precise right time in the precise right way before obstacle C will go away and you can lick the MacGuffin. Every storied RPG I’ve played has had that problem to some extent.

    I’d draw your attention to things like Mount and Blade (Particularly M&B Warband with the Diplomacy mod). Open world, no quests more complex than “take this message” or “kill these bandits” (well, a few, but that’s complex). Large cast of relatively varied characters, though not as deep as I’d like. But, I do find it’s a decent amount of “here is a story I can carve myself in the world” pleasure rather than following their storylines.

    Dwarf Fortress has a very different aspect of it. There are individual dwarves in your settlement, and each has their skills, jobs, preferences, personalities, relationships… all quite complex, but you’re not a character in the world, you’re the semi-omnicognisant manager god thing. You can build stories with deep pathos or Lovecraft-grade horror or Jackass-grade stupidity… Like the dwarven cook who made the entire fortress’ supply of food into delicious baked goods… and then they ran out of alcohol… and you can’t make alcohol from cooked meals, just the raw ingredients… and then the stream froze over… half the fortress was dead of dehydration by the time spring came, and the emotional scars caused even more to commit suicide…

    That got off topic a little. Poor guys…

    So, yes… the technical reasons you speculate on are there, as are large numbers of gamers who would throw a fit over being unable to access half the content of a game without a full second playthrough. FTL manages to get away with it, because it’s a quick game – a few hours at most. Starting again after 50 hours of Skyrim, however…

    The problems are not beyond the ability of the industry, but for the most part, the incentive is. What they make now… sells.

    • Thanks for the recommends – I’ll see if I can’t have a shot at them.

      And as to the gamers … yeah, I can see why someone would be annoyed at having content withheld for the first playthrough, though I think a truly deep game can’t be fully experienced on only one playthrough.
      Seriously, *only* 50 hours of Skyrim!? 😛

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