Story Games and Empty Reviews

It occurred to me recently that game reviewers ignore story. I don’t think they do it on purpose. I’d like to think they just don’t grok story. Or maybe they think gamers don’t care about story. So they talk about gameplay. They talk about genre, perspective, graphics, audio, controls. But they ignore story. Two examples from videogames.yahoo.com illustrate the point well.

Dreamfall

Mike Smith reviewed Dreamfall, Ragnar Tornquist’s much anticipated sequel to The Longest Journey. In his review, he wrote, “Being that this is such a story-driven game, we’re not going to weigh into a major recap of the plot. Discovering it for yourself is the greatest part of Dreamfall’s appeal.”

Yes, he actually said since Dreamfall is a story game, he’s not going to talk about the plot. That’s like going to Roger Ebert’s site and reading, “Because this is such a story-driven film, I’m not going to tell you what actually happens in it. Instead, I’ll talk about the cinematography, soundtrack, and what editing system they used to generate the final master. Trust me, you’ll want to shell out your hard-earned cash to see this movie.” (That would be a sure sign his site has been hacked.) Fortunately, Roger Ebert is smart enough to know I wouldn’t shell out my hard-earned cash just on some vague recommendation, even from him. And if I wouldn’t do it for Roger Ebert, I’m certainly not going to do it for Mike Smith!

Of course, Mike Smith does go on to talk about the characters, which are a core component of any story. He tells us Zoe the main character is “flawed and insecure, and not shy about pointing out her weak points,… resourceful, appealingly practical, and deeply likable.” Well ain’t that special? He also warns us that “much of the game is spent watching [the characters] talk to each other.” Now, I love dialogue as much as any story geek. But all these things remind me too much of what they said about The Longest Journey.

Psychonauts

Flip over to Chris Hudak’s better review of Psychonauts. He at least does tell us what the plot is, and deftly integrates it with his description of the gameplay. This is what the game does with story and gameplay. You don’t know when you’ve passed from one into the other. In fact, you don’t pass from one into the other; they are both part of the same thing.

He tells us the game’s “unique subject matter and presentation give players the odd sense of having accomplished something meaningful.”

Let’s just pause there for a second and gloat.

He summarizes: “Psychonauts is weird, funny, immensely playable, and has that nigh-unclassifiable thing we can only call charm (this is a brainchild from the creator of Grim Fandango and Full Throttle, after all).”

If this charm is so unclassifiable, how can Tim Schafer hit it on the nose again and again and again, every single time? It’s not luck. It’s story.

Empty reviews and shallow games

Most games do not integrate story with gameplay, and most game reviewers don’t care. They report on the story as though it were just a gimmick attached to the side of what you really paid 50 bucks for. The story is just there to make the game more interesting, if you happen to notice it. And that’s how most game designers treat story. Most game designers probably don’t even know how to tell a story.

We end up with the creativity being spent on gameplay and the story being told in full-motion cut-scenes. Gamers, of course, are there to play the game, not watch the cut-scenes. If they wanted to watch a movie, they would have rented a movie. This is a game, and they want to play it. So they skip over the cut-scenes, and they skip over the story. And it looks to the world like gamers don’t care about story.

Jordan Mechner wrote in Wired:

In a movie, the story is what the characters do. In a game, the story is what the player does… Better game storytelling doesn’t mean producing higher-quality cinematic cutscenes; it means constructing the game so that the most powerful and exciting moments of the story occur not in the cutscenes but during the gameplay itself.

Unfortunately, the the state of the game industry does not value story, much less story integrated with gameplay. Fortunately this is not the state of gamers. Gamers are people, and they enjoy a good story just as the rest of us do. And with more women playing games, story should become increasingly important, but that’s another topic. The game industry doesn’t understand story, so ineffectual stories become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But that could change. IGN recently quoted Tim Schafer:

I just don’t think people’s appetites are being whetted… I think every human being relates to a good story. If they got more good stories in games then they’d start to expect it… They haven’t had enough examples of what happens when you have really great writing in a game. It makes everyone think [gamers] don’t like story – when they just probably have never had a good story.

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but let me say it again: Tim Schafer is my hero. He says all the things about stories in games that I want to say, before I can say them. And he displays a passion that I envy. I can’t wait to see what Double Fine is working on.

-TimK

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

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