Imagine, if you will you’ll, that you’re looking at someone standing in an empty cave the size of a stadium, fighting a creature a hundred times their size. You don’t need words to explain this. It’s your classic David vs Goliath struggle, a story told entirely in images. An image, after all, is worth a thousand words. Now add music to that image. Now movement. Now control. What I’ve just described is a scene out of dungeon-crawler Demon’s Souls. It just so happens that you get to participate in those images.
Less is more
There’s little in in the way of plot, characters, or dialogue to bog things down. As such, the game functions more as an interactive picture book than an interactive movie. It’s been argued that games cannot have the depth of other, more linear forms of storytelling such as books or movies, but I believe that games tell stories that are much more abstract. These stories are based on each player’s experience of playing the game, and a game’s artistry can subtly guide this narrative experience, without overbearing the player with exposition.
Continuing with Demon’s Souls, one area of the game is based within a labyrinthine mine. You start out on the surface, along a lush canyon against the red of a sunset. As you enter the mines, you come upon dimly lit tunnels and wooden walkways. Plunging the mine deeper, you find yourself in ever darker, narrower tunnels, only to suddenly stumble upon large pools of lava with giant slug-like creatures. There’s a staggering feeling of isolation and helplessness as you realize just how deep the rabbit hole is, and this is all done with only the slightest hint of plot. Thus far, the plot has been very simple one about a cursed kingdom and an anonymous hero fighting legions of demons to save it. The story isn’t complex, yet it provides enough context to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. The real story, however, is yours as you fight the impossible fight against a gorgeously rendered backdrop.
Crackdown’s story is found in its world, not in its cut scenes.
Another game that understands this minimalistic approach to storytelling is Crackdown, even though it was frequently criticized for lacking a story. It did actually have one, but it was told entirely through its setting and gameplay mechanics. True, there is no real character development, and your only mission is to take out twenty-one targets, in whatever way you choose to. Crackdown’s story lies in its portrayal of a fascist society, something discovered by exploring its world and blowing shit up. The agents, of which your protagonist is one, are mindless drones that can be respawned from a number of supply points, a solid indication of how powerful and inhuman the Agency’s totalitarian rule is. The Agency Tower is the game’s tallest building, reinforcing the notion of a totalitarian, fascist society. The final twist reveals that the agency is (gasp) evil, and it’s hardly a surprise, given how the player has spent countless hours as a merciless killing machine. Subsequently, this heavy-handed explanation is the one point where the storytelling missteps, as it doesn’t trust players to figure out things for themselves.
Beating you over the head with exposition
Perhaps I’m just nitpicking, but when a game forces a poorly written script on you, it bothers me more than a game with no plot at all. Last year’s Mirror’s Edge provides a good example. Aside from the first-person parkour, the most unique thing about Mirror’s Edge is in fact its world. The sterile, vaguely alien portrayal of a totalitarian society is striking, and certainly stands out in an industry full of gritty post-apocalyptic worlds. Interestingly, the world is completely devoid of people, save for a few other runners like protagonist Faith, and some cops. I’ve heard people criticize this as lazy design. I, however, found it intriguing. I too wondered why the world was largely abandoned, but this only added to the game’s mysterious vibe.
Sadly, much of this mystery is undone because the game forces plot on you, and a clichéd one at that. Faith’s sister has been framed, so Faith has to clear her name and uncover the real bad guys. There are some twists and turns along the way, but the cast is so thinly drawn that it’s hard to care. What’s worse is that this uninteresting plot is at odds with the game’s minimalist world. Characters act as if everything is normal, no-one ever talks about no-one being around, making Mirror’s Edge’s beautiful world feel like the artificial video game construct that it is, rather than a fleshed-out, haunting universe.
Mirror’s Edge’s beautiful, unique world is neglected by its plot
Imagine how interesting it could have been had the designers been content to make Mirror’s Edge simply about Faith carrying out her daily duties. There could still be a detailed back-story, but it wouldn’t pander to the player. Perhaps there could be a mission where you’re being pursued by a helicopter, so you’d know you were carrying something important, something dangerous. Once you had lost your pursuers, you could deliver your package to your target who would then throw in a nice tip and shut the door. Did you just aid a terrorist? Or perhaps a revolution against the oppressive Big Brother-esque government? You would be forced to question whether or not you’d done the right thing. Later events could be based on your previous actions, like a skyscraper blowing up, so it would then become clear that what you delivered was a bomb. There would still be a story, but it wouldn’t be told through blatant exposition. It would be just enough to go on to immerse you and give you a sense of purpose, without beating you over the head with a conventional tale of heroism.
If you look, you’ll find cake – or will you?
Recent Valve hits like Left 4 Dead and Portal do this amazingly well. Both games feature no points where your progress is impeded while you wait for someone to address you and explain things (as is the case with Valve’s Half-Life series). You can enjoy both games simply as games, paying no mind to the story; shooting zombies and solving physics-based puzzles are both a lot of fun, after all. Yet both games have rich settings and stories to unravel if you care to look at the quite literal writing on the wall. As Portal scribe Erik Wolpaw said in an interview with Gamasutra, "We generally found that if we added more of it [story], people just tuned out more. Usually, if they weren’t interested enough to pay attention to it, it was better just to cut it. Although sometimes we would try and move it into the environment itself." This view is reflected by Chet Faliszek, head writer on Left 4 Dead, in an interview with Joystiq: "Our goal and our interest is to tell stories in the game; not in cut scenes. I think movies do a really good job of telling that." Ideally, story should never get in the way of gameplay and vica versa.
Video games give us the opportunity to explore and make choices, something that comes at odds with the more rigorous structure of non-interactive media. Merely allowing us to act out a story that could otherwise make sense as a book or a movie is only scratching the surface of what games are capable of. Since they allow for so much agency on the player’s part, storytellers should realize that when it comes to plot in games, less is more. The story comes from our experience of playing. It comes from the art direction, level design, and game mechanics. Indeed, a good script can go a long way to tying all those other elements together, so long as it doesn’t overburden the player with exposition. The most powerful stories are the ones happening in our heads. These stories aren’t explicitly told, but rather experienced and discovered on our own. __________________