Games and storytelling

A while back, Graham Linehan (writer of The I.T. Crowd and Father Ted, among other comedy classics) posted the following on Twitter:

I love the gameplay, but every time anyone opens their mouth it bounces you right out of the experience. #RDR

The ‘#RDR’ is a reference to Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption, an open-world game set in the Wild West. I was playing through the game myself at the time and, despite a slow start, I was enjoying the story, so I didn’t really agree. Luckily, Mr. Linehan is the kind of person who replies, and, after a brief exchange, I realised he’d actually made a really good point (it was sort of expected; he’s got a bit of experience in the writing field), and I got thinking about the storytelling in games.

It never really occurred to me that John Marston (the main protagonist in Red Dead Redemption) only really needed the smallest of pushes before he opened up and revealed his entire life story, being so used to games doing it, I saw it as necessary for exposition – If I’m supposed to care about John and his family, I need to know about his past, right? In Graham’s words:

Disagree. Writers think that exposition reveals character whereas in fact it obscures it. doesnt have to be like this

The storytelling in a huge number of games became a little bit more frustrating after I’d read that; In the vast majority of story-driven games, I care about the character I control because of the events that take place during the game, and, maybe more importantly, because I’m in control of them – not because they had a rough childhood.  Obviously, I’m not saying that the character’s past isn’t important, but unless it’s linked in with the plot, it’s not really necessary for ‘motivation’.

This is clearly something that games writers have picked up from cinema, where the actions of a character go a long way in helping you understand them, but it doesn’t really translate in a medium where you control the character. It becomes frustrating because I don’t mind the developers – or writers – trying to make me care about this character, I just don’t want the game to be interrupted while they do it – Cut-scenes are very much a standard in games for forwarding the plot, and that’s fine, but there’s no good reason to cut away from the action unless it’s doing just that.

Storytelling in games is very much in it’s infancy compared to the likes of cinema, and it’s encouraging to see so much ambition, but it’s important to remember that it only really serves to make the experience more memorable; I’ve played and enjoyed many games with a huge range of stories – Just Cause 2 (laughably absurd), Dead Space (generic horror crap), Half-Life 2 (absorbing) – but I enjoyed them because of the gameplay, the story just makes it an experience I can come back to – like a film.

Hopefully developers will continue to experiment in storytelling alongside gameplay mechanics and we’ll find some common ground where everybody wins – If you’re that guy that skips every cut-scene of every game he’s played*, maybe you won’t have to bother; if you want a gripping, complicated story with twists and turns along the way**, hopefully you can get that without only having 20 minutes of actual gameplay. In the meantime, developers, if you’re struggling a bit with story, just do what Valve does, yeah? They know their shit.

* You freak

** I like you

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