Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Story and Consequences

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 14, 2010

Craig Stern of Sinister Design asked several indie game developers about the role of narrative in games in an article entitled, “Why Have Narrative In Games.”  Now, they were all RPG developers, which is traditionally a very story-heavy genre, so the answers were perhaps unsurprising. My own answer is probably the biggest outlier, as I feel that “good” narrative and “good” interactivity are highly competitive masters to serve. But hey, I’ll let you read it and come back:

Curiously enough, as much as I denote the problem of narrative in games, it’s a big part of what drives me to play.  If you’ve been around here long enough, you know that one of the most influential game series for me was the Wing Commander series.  What was Wing Commander? Basically an arcade-y flight sim (well, space combat…) with a story welded onto it. It worked well.

In fact, in some ways, the first game worked better than the second, which many people considered the “best” of the series. In the first game, the story was more … optional and background-y. And it would change. Characters would die. If they died, there’d be an empty chair marking where they would have participated in a conversation.

I’ll tell you – when I let Spirit die in the original game, it was a lot more poignant than her self-sacrifice in the sequel. It was precisely because she wasn’t supposed to die – because her story was supposed to continue – but her death had been my responsibility. In the sequel, the game designers had arbitrarily decided to punch her clock, and it was abundantly clear that there was nothing I could have done about it. It was forced.

From a narrative, storytelling perspective, her “canon” death was “better.” It wasn’t a random shot from a Kilrathi blaster, but a conscious decision of sacrifice on her part. But it sucked. It was the one that felt lame and cheap by comparison.

Maybe it’s just me.  I expect most players simply re-loaded the mission and played again in Wing Commander when they lost a wingman. After my first or second play-through, that’s what I’d do. Heck, I’d re-load because a single Kilrathi ship managed to get away.

In fact, that’s why the far more interactive structure of the first game was abandoned in favor of the more linear story of the second. The developers found that most people never played the “losing” branch of the campaign.  At all. And, by going to a linear storyline, they could actually make better use of tried-and-true storytelling methods to tell A Better Story.

It probably was. And again, people seemed to prefer the second game over the first.  So I’m probably the weirdo outlier.

Granted, if we could have the best of both worlds, I’d be all for it. But where they come into conflict (and they almost always do), for  me, interactive consequences seem to trump the use of superior storytelling techniques in a game.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • Stephen said,

    The quicksave is the bane of consequences in story-based games, but games feel forced and inconsiderate without them. The ideal is to figure out how to design a game such that every negative comes with an interesting bonus that makes the game interesting in a way that purely winning doesn’t. My intuition is that the bonus wouldn’t have to equal the loss as long as it was interesting enough that you wouldn’t feel so bad getting to see it on a given playthrough where you lost a character or whatever.

    Or you set up situations where something bad is absolutely going to happen, and play is to minimize and *choose* what is your lesser of evils.

    But as long as there’s a way to achieve a perfect win by perfect play, the quicksave/quickload button is a terrible temptation to keep using until you get it right, or you just use a walkthrough. The pursuit of the win (perceived as the greater fun) results in a frustrating grind and actions that feel like cheating.

  • Jay K. said,

    I feel that story should be subservient to the game. I read “Masters of Doom”, and have to agree with Carmack in that the story for Doom and Quake would have gotten more in the way than helped those games.

    For RPGs specifically, story provides reasons for the goals and quests, which in turn lead to character development (which can be more than collecting loot and increasing stats). Beyond that, it starts getting in the way of the game. Of course, I don’t like jRPGs for that very reason. I don’t like button mashing in my movies. 🙂 Also, for the same reason you outlined, I didn’t care for the sequels to Wing Commander nearly as much as I did the original.

  • patrick said,

    I totally agree! The first game, though nto as great in other ways, was incredibly ahead of its time. Maybe even ahead of today’s time. What was so important about the “failure” path was that even though it was not seen so much, it *existed*. And because it existed, it gave real meaning to the “success” path. It wasn’t a case of doing the mission until you succeeded – you could always fail, and that was OK. mission failure didn’t mean GAME OVER. It meant you had to go try something else and get back on track.

    And the ability to lose your friends and such was incredibly awesome. It put real responsibility, and added a touch of reality to the game. People could die at any time. Sure, the second time I started playng I rocked and destroyed the enemy and lost nobody – but I was an expert by then, and it felt incredible not to lose anyone along the way. Each mission became a tense contest *because* it meant something, and getting to the end with no casualites was really important thing.

  • Silemess said,

    I think it is important that the game COULD continue even if you got a sub-optimal conclusion. Sure, you could replay until you passed the mission… on the other hand, you could accept that poorer outcome and ride with it. It really did make the NPCs that much more important and dearer. To know that they could have lived if you’d been able to help them.

  • Xenovore said,

    I don’t want a lot of story in my games. (I watch movies and read books for that.) Developers should provide enough story to support the premise and theme of the game, and no more. Any lengthy textual expositions or cutscenes tend to bore the player (especially on subsequent play-throughs).

    It’s better to show than to tell (I include cutscenes in “to tell”), and better to involve than to show. Show the story via objects in the game environment, character interactions, etc. but also keep player directly involved in the story as frequently as possible. The player should be the central character in the story, and if possible, his actions should affect the environment and characters around him; there should be permanent consequences.

    Examples of what I’m talking about include Fallout 3, Half-Life, and Halo. Obviously, the story depth and mutability differs considerably in each of these examples, but in each the story is told via character interactions and clues in the environment.

    And leave some stuff to the player’s imagination! Allowing the player to use his imagination creates a far more immersive experience. This seems like an obvious thing to me, but some developers (yeah you, Square) miss this point all the time.

  • Xenovore said,

    By the way, there are probably better examples than those above, but those are what came readily to mind. I do want to point out one lame thing in Half-Life 2 (and many other games): The game should not end abruptly if a supporting character (e.g. Alyx Vance) gets killed. There should be alternative ways to advance through the game.

  • WCG said,

    An “arcade-y flight-sim” might work fine with a story, and other types of games, too. A shooter might be just about the game mechanics. Linearity wouldn’t matter at all. And indeed, I’ve played RPGs – like Planescape: Torment – with great storylines. So it IS possible.

    But I don’t think that is playing to the real strengths of games (RPGs in particular). A movie is a great medium for storytelling because it’s linear and passive. The viewer watches and listens as the storyteller weaves his magic. But why make a game into a poor imitation of a movie?

    A good RPG is not passive and not linear. The player MATTERS. He should make all of the decisions. This conflicts with the beginning, middle, and end model of a story. If you’re telling a story, then one way or another, you’ve got to maneuver the player in YOUR direction.

    I’d rather see a virtual world with any number of situations (potential “stories”). There can be an overarching situation, some serious problem affecting nearly everyone, no problem. But if the player chooses to ignore that, it should play out reasonably without him. Meanwhile, everywhere he goes, everyone he talks to, should have the potential to mean something to him, too. He should basically create his own story through playing the game. And every play-through would be unique.

    I see Dwarf Fortress as leading the way in this direction. It’s not an RPG itself, but the idea is there. People basically create their own stories as they play. You see them post such “stories” all the time. We’re only at the very beginning of this – it will require NPCs with much better AI, for one thing – but I can’t wait to see how it develops. There are a few other games doing this kind of thing, but not very many. Not nearly enough.

    I just think that most games – even though they may be fun to play – have taken the wrong direction in this.

    PS. You mentioned characters dying. But if such a character died in real life, the chair wouldn’t stay empty. Someone else would take it. And all sorts of other people would be affected by that death, too. I don’t think we have the technology for realistic NPCs yet, but we will someday.

  • Craig Stern said,

    Well put. My only reservation about what you said above is the idea that interactive consequences and storytelling are somehow incompatible. Stories in games don’t have to be linear. If you ask me, stories that respond meaningfully to player choices represent an ideal to which all developers should aspire. 🙂