Focusing on story-telling in video games

Interactivity is what separates video gaming from other forms of media.  Yet, it seems like too many developers spend most of their budget developing graphics, and players spend more and more of their time watching cutscenes instead of playing a game. Video games need to focus on solid, enduring gameplay more than the story, graphics, or anything else.

Obviously, a compelling story and top-of-the-line visuals can only serve to improve most games. They definitely need serious attention during the development process, as long as it is not at the expense of gameplay. It is not the medium’s job to provide the best visuals and stories – consumers can find much better examples of both by reading a book or watching a movie.

The problem with many stories in video games is simply that the games are not good at telling them. Too often, developers use cutscenes in order to advance the story. Brief cutscenes are fine in moderation, but when the entire plot is only advanced by watching a movie, the game is not doing its job.

For example, the recent release of The Order: 1886 for PlayStation 4 has been lauded for its near-realistic visuals and production value. However, it has also received strong criticism for its short campaign mode and very limited gameplay and player interaction. At times, the game feels much more like watching a CGI movie. This game is a perfect example of developers focusing on the wrong aspects of game making: no matter how impressive or lifelike the visuals are, if the gameplay is too flawed it will not be received well. On the contrary, games like the Mario series have very minimal to no stories at all, but are still universally considered to be excellent because of their incredibly satisfying gameplay.

Some games try to make the cutscenes more interactive by introducing quick time events, in which a button command will briefly appear on the screen during the scene. The player must be quick to react, or they risk failing and having to start the scene from the beginning. This is a lazy and ineffective way to make a game more interactive. The developers are still using cutscenes as a crutch, but now they are also forcing the player to pay close attention with a cheap tactic. If they are so worried about the player tuning out during the cutscenes, they should either remove the cutscenes entirely or at least make them more interesting.

Good games tell their stories through gameplay. In Portal 2 the player is always in control – there are no clear boundaries between storytelling and game playing. The player sees the entire game through the main character’s eyes, and experiences everything that she does. The story is mostly told through voiceovers during gameplay, and develops quite deeply as the game progresses.

For an older example, Metroid Prime for the Nintendo GameCube subtly contains a very interesting backstory. There is no dialogue in the game, and very brief cutscenes (less than one minute) only happen to introduce boss fights or new areas. Instead, the story is told through messages inscribed in the environments by unseen characters, and it is totally optional for the player to read them at all. It is up to the player to piece the story together, and the player has the freedom to choose how far down the rabbit hole he wants to go.

Both Metroid Prime and Portal 2 tell compelling stories without breaking up the flow of the gameplay or the player’s immersion within the game world. More games should follow these examples in order to make the experiences for their players as best as they can possibly be.