Storytelling in video games: why does it have to be so fucking awful sometimes?

We can't stop here!  This is bat country!

We can't stop here! This is bat country!

Reading about and then discussing the Arkh Project yesterday got me thinking about the video gaming industry in general, particularly the relationship between role-playing games and storytelling.  While any game has a story behind it, some genres feature more expository presentation than others – you wouldn’t exactly expect Asteroids or Breakout to be the backdrop for an epic Dickensian tale, now would you?  Well, I guess you could, but at that point you’ve probably got more drugs in your system than Hunter S. Thompson had while he was writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Storytelling in computer and console gaming in a more abstract way came into dominance through the RPG genre, especially since the story unfolds in these kinds of games through a narrative that’s usually pushed along by interacting with non-player characters.  The old Ultima PC game series is a good example of this, as is the Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and to a lesser extent action-RPG titles such as The Legend of Zelda; essentially any game out there that had NPCs who weren’t actively hostile or who actually had a role to play to aid the player fits this description.  Since these earlier RPG days, telling a story through a digital, interactive medium has blossomed and flourished through countless titles that have become increasingly complex in the tales they try to tell – sometimes with mixed results.

While interactivity is a huge part of gaming, when the industry has progressed to the point where the expectation of the player is to have high quality plot and dialogue, it becomes important to have an overarching storyline that makes sense and dialogue between characters that sounds natural – especially since major gaming companies hire A-list talent for their character voice-overs.  I’ve noticed a lot of the time that sometimes the efforts of developers fall flat in this area, and this can detract from the enjoyment of a game in the aggregate, even more so if you’re playing an RPG where story and character interaction is so important to the overall play experience.

A good example is Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, an action-RPG that came out recently that plays like a souped-up version of Lionhead Studios’ Fable series.  Fantasy author R.A. Salvatore was purportedly involved in the writing of the game’s plot, and my fellow nerds can easily point out that Salvatore literally wrote the book on what most people think when they hear the words “dark elf.”

I downloaded the KoA:R demo a week or so ago, which gives players free rein to a large portion of the finished product, albeit with a built-in timer of an hour or so before you can’t play it any more.  I managed to get through a good chunk of the early game in my play-through, well past the tutorial area and into the first main quest hub, and while I could say a lot about the gameplay or the art style of the game, I’ll focus instead on the quality of the writing I experienced – mostly through dialogue.

While the game has Salvatore’s name across it in huge bold letters, I’ve got more than a sneaking suspicion that he didn’t hand-craft every line of dialogue in the game.  For the most part, about 80 percent of what I got to experience was obviously written by someone else, as it’s almost uniformly stilted and bland.  The voice acting helps keep your interest piqued, but for the most part the writing is simply uninspired and muddled.

I can see the bones of the story underneath all the fat, and what I’ve seen so far is pretty enticing and definitely up to par on what I know about Salvatore – the story revolves around a person (the main character) brought back to life in an experiment that has the potential to turn the tide in a war where the losing side has been battered by an aggressor comprised of immortal foes; kind of like Battlestar Galactica if the Cylons had pointy ears and dressed like your average LARP enthusiast.

The main character wakes up atop a pile of bodies – failed experiments – with no knowledge or memory of what happened to him before he or she died, and is thrust into a situation that is confusing and difficult to comprehend.  The people you meet in your first hour or so in he game absolutely inundate you with information about the setting until your head is spinning and you’re just begging to be pointed to the next quest objective so you can kill 12 imps or kobolds or something in order to be awarded a new pair of pants, just so you can feel like you’re accomplishing something.

This is simply a wasted opportunity on the developers’ part, and kind of a cop-out when it comes to the problem of educating the player about the setting of the game they’re going to be spending upwards of 30 to 50 hours playing.  Having to wade through reams of text from Generic Fantasy Gnome With A Vaguely Celtic Accent #4 is all right occasionally, but the characters that I encountered were so terribly two-dimensional that it felt like I was reading Flatland.

And I don’t know what it is that fascinates RPG developers with using high diction for every single character.  For those who don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, high diction is that rarefied, stick-up-the-ass, stilted and formal speech that you read and hear a lot in places like mediocre fantasy movies and novels (and presidential debates).  Even J.R.R. Tolkien, the reigning king of high diction, didn’t have every single one of his characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings speak in high diction – hobbits, goblins, orcs, trolls, dwarfs, and nearly every patron of the Prancing Pony spoke like rough country folk, or at least as close an approximation as Tolkien could imagine.

High diction has a place, and it works as a great tool for differentiating one culture from another in a work of fiction, but when everyone sounds the goddamn same except for an accent (or maybe some reverb thrown in for the more otherworldly characters), everything blends together.  A pig farmer shouldn’t have the same speech patterns as a priest, or as a mercenary captain, and certainly not a nobleman.  Meanwhile game developers need to learn that less is more and stop using every single dialogue opportunity as a way to bombard the player with information overload about the game’s setting, especially in long RPGs where you’ve got ample opportunities to develop the setting alongside the plot to ease a player into the game world.

You’ve got a lot to learn when you pick up a new game nowadays, especially an RPG with complex gameplay elements related to a character’s in-game abilities, skills, powers, and itemization.  Take your time, for fuck’s sake; if you really feel the need to give the player an opportunity to learn more about the setting, make it optional through reading in-game books and scrolls, like it’s done in similar games.  Just stop trying to force-feed me The Silmarillion in the original Elvish – it’s hard enough to read in fucking English without falling asleep.

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6 thoughts on “Storytelling in video games: why does it have to be so fucking awful sometimes?

  1. First I’d like to say that Salvatore only did the storyline and the game world and it’s lore. He didn’t craft every line in the game.

    Apart from that, I completely disagree with making the setting and such optional reading through in game reading materials. Final Fantasy 13 is like that, and it’s one of my biggest gripes with the game. If you can’t weave backstory into the narrative, then why am I playing? As a big old time RPG fan, I’m very used to and comfortable with talking to 2^n random characters for story and world information between battling. That is why it’s not considered an action title.

    The way I think of it is this. If I’d lost my memory, and had just woken up on a pile of bodies, I’d want information and answers first and foremost. I wouldn’t be instantly set to just plunge into the killing fields. So I cut games like this a lot of slack in that department, since this is standard RPG fare.

    Oh, and FYI, the demo had horrible issues and ended up being just broken. The final product, though, is incredible. None of the technical issues of the demo, since the demo wasn’t done by the dev. It was outsourced.

    Apart from all that, I find that games these days, like you said, seem to require a deep, incredible, innovative, and engaging story. That’s not how gaming started out, so I don’t find games with weak stories but awesome gameplay to be bad by definition. The story doesn’t need to be deep, just had a decent premise or setting. I thought modern warfare was ‘meh’, but I loved Bioshock. Not that the story was super deep or whatever, but it was a cool idea and setting. OK, i’m rambling. I won’t hijack anymore….:)

    • Bioshock is hands-down one of my favorite games, and not just because you spend the game killing members of the Ayn Rand book club. The way the story unfolds in Bioshock is pretty much perfect – a combination of just slowly discovering things as you go that’s supplemented with those little audio diaries everywhere. And let’s not even get into that twist 3/4 through the game!

      Games at their core are about gameplay though, so to a large degree you’re right – engaging game mechanics can go a long way in making me excuse or forgive a half-assed story. Sometimes though, at least for me, if the story is REALLY bad or incomprehensible, it doesn’t matter how good the game plays – I literally couldn’t finish Final Fantasy X, even though I loved the Sphere Grid. The story just made me turn my head to the left like an owl and go “wat.”

      X was the last modern FF game I played, so I can’t speak to the others really. Though as far as KoA:R is concerned, I’m glad to know that the issues in the demo were just with the demo and not the rest of the game! I liked the combat and the crafting quite a lot. Maybe I’ll “borrow” it from a “friend.”

      • Skyrim is, for me, the best example of this. You learn about all the gods and Daedra and political chicanery going on through the quest lines and dialogue. If it’s REALLY important to know, they tell you and explain it to you in dialogue options, but a lot of the time they don’t force you to do it.

        Conversely, if you REALLY want to dig into the back story, you can spend probably hundreds of hours reading every book you find. But, here’s the key: you don’t have to. My girlfriend has probably spent 30 hours flipping through books in Skyrim. I’ve spent about one. If it doesn’t give me a skill point, I shut it and throw it away. We still both think it’s a great, immersive game with an incredibly engaging plot line and world.

      • Oh, and I forgot add:

        One of my good friends went through a video game design masters program. When we talked about the crafting of excellent stories and compelling dialogue, he told me the lead designers are really just the lead visual artists. They’re responsible for the story and for a lot of the dialogue. There’s not really a position in most games for a writer.

        Seriously.

        There’s no position for a writer.

        Kind of a disconnect if you ask me.

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  3. Yeah, I was the same way when I was playing Skyrim – I’d open a book, and if it didn’t give me skill experience or be shorter than a page or so, I tossed it.

    The second comment you made makes sense, in terms of why some games have the kind of dialogue and storytelling you’d expect from Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction or something. And even if RA Salvatore didn’t craft every line of dialogue in KoA:R, it’s a good start. They need more writers in the gaming industry – more good ones, anyway.

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