The advancement of the art of storytelling in video games

Shadow of the Colossus' simple, spare storyline has been repeatedly acclaimed as a high-water mark in video game storytelling. Even before Mario trekked through the Mushroom Kingdom to rescue the Princess and Pac-Man was pursued by a quartet of ghosts, video games have been a storytelling medium. As games matured from simple sprites to a multi-billion dollar industry, so the scope of video games increased —in terms of graphical fidelity, size and scope of game worlds, and the potential for storytelling.

The problem, though, is that only two of those three aspects have seen real growth to this point. While our favored medium is still maturing, it's encountered some growing pains in finding the right way to tell a story — and the right kind of stories to tell.

Warning: Spoilers for Grand Theft Auto IV, Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid, Fallout 3, Fable II, and Shadow of the Colossus follow.

The deep, gritty urban environment of Liberty City created by Rockstar for Grand Theft Auto IV opens up to gamers in a way that both forwards the storyline as well as the gameplay needs of the player.

While storytelling techniques from books, comics, TV and movies may be applicable to games, the nature of the video game medium means not all of these techniques make best use of the gaming experience. A major difference is that video games are an experiential medium: gamers expect to learn new tricks or techniques, or gain access to new worlds throughout the course of a game. While this may not be as true in sports or racing games, for example, players of single-player-focused games of all genres expect a sort of ramp — both in terms of what skills your character has as well as in difficulty. A game like Ninja Gaiden or God of War would feel stale if your character started the game with the abilities, weapons and skills he or she ended with. In order to increase the difficulty of the game (generally from simple to complex as the game nears its close), those skills are needed to introduce new challenges.

Movies and books do not expect you to make such strides throughout the story— however, the convention of unlocking more and more powerful weapons or abilities throughout a single-player role playing game or action game is a video game standby. An issue games have, then, is telling a powerful story within a framework that also makes sense from a gameplay perspective. Done in a banal or uninspired way, a game feels cliché or trite; but when executed well, games marry storytelling and advancement in a flowing, natural way.

A great example is the post-GTA III Grand Theft Auto games. The game world in Rockstar’s flagship series opens up as missions unlock; the key is that it feels natural. An attempt on the life of GTA IV protagonist Nico Bellic and his cousin early in the game forces them from the first opening area of the game to the next one; while it’s still shepherding the player from one area to another, it makes sense in the context of both gameplay (moving from one level to another) and storytelling.

Another challenge to story is in level structure for many games. While movies and novels go through crests and valleys of action and story progression, games take it to another level and build levels around specific action scenes as well as new mechanics. Take a game like Gears of War 2 as an example. Most every level in the two Gears of War games introduces a new technique or experience — whether that's riding on a giant excavator and firing from mounted turrets, or working your way through a giant worm, the story is oftentimes molded in such a way as to naturally introduce new scenarios for gamers.

Many aspects of Gears of War and Gears of War II's storyline rotate around the game's level design, crafting the story around what the designers want the gamer to experience. The chainsaw duel, however, is just badass.

The problem that arises from this is that parts of the story can be cut due to difficulty with getting a level functioning properly. If the game's engine just flat-out can’t handle a level, or the developers lack the time to finish a scene to their desired quality, it gets cut. Compare this to movies, novels and TV shows, where content is cut in the interest of brevity or relevance — scenes are deleted or pages are cut because they’re excess, not because the director or writer doesn’t know how to shoot them or put them into words.

It's not the case with games because many story-focused games hone in on gameplay first, with the story built to fit. The Gears of War series is guilty of this, with story built to explain away gameplay concepts, but it’s certainly not the only one out there.

Regardless, the medium is still blossoming in terms of finding new and inventive ways to tell stories. There have been advances in taking the best of post-modern storytelling and combining that with the interactivity of gaming to create something that can only be told through the medium of the video game.

A game like Bioshock is a step in this right direction. It takes a rather ordinary story idea, with a relatively simple plot progression throughout, but throws the player for a loop by manipulating the story within the context of gaming. Bioshock doesn't succeed because its dystopian, Ayn Rand-inspired story is groundbreaking, but because it takes certain video game tropes — that gamers have a choice, have control, and that a person giving them instructions can be trusted — and uses them to bring meaning to the player. It takes the idea that the narrator and guiding voice in a game can be taken for gospel and stands it on its head. While it’s a simple concept (and one explored in books like The Catcher in the Rye or Catch-22), it’s one that has not been explored in detail in videogames.

Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima utilized many interesting technical tricks with the PlayStation, including reading from the memory card for other Konami games in the form of Psycho Mantis reading Solid Snakes mind.

You think you have the game figured out, then it turns out you've been a pawn all along. Metal Gear Solid did this, too — along with other mind-tricks that took advantage of the medium. This is best exemplified in the battle with Psycho Mantis, a specially trained super-soldier who could read the protagonist’s – and the player’s – mind. How was that achieved? Psycho Mantis could “read your mind” and counter all of your actions if you left the PlayStation controller in the first control port; this boss also read the PlayStation memory cards to see if there was any save data for other games by Metal Gear Solid’s publisher, Konami. Players had to learn to either adapt to the fight…or just move the controller to the second port.

Fortunately, more games are playing with the structure of the narrative for dramatic effect. PlayStation 2 classic Shadow of the Colossus uses bare minimalism to create an emotionally meaningful experience. It’s gaming structure at its simplest — the protagonist must go defeat a series of bosses to save his beloved princess — but the sparseness of the world that the player rides and hunts in creates a stillness, a narrative white space that contrasts with the brutal climbing and killing of the gentle yet gigantic colossi the player must slay. It’s powerful and moving in ways few other games are.

Bioware’s RPGs, including the Baldur’s Gate series, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect, all seek to evoke emotion through a different method: choice. Knights of the Old Republic popularized a trend towards good/evil choice in games — actions and dialogue in KOTOR affected your character’s development and standing within the game’s community, as well as storyline options that were available. Some characters’ quests were only available if you were good or evil enough, and the theory was that gamers would go for one path or another but must live with their decisions.

Fallout 3's Broken Steel downloadable content retroactively changes the ending to the game from a hard, final conclusion, to a jumping-off point for more end-game content.

Other games, like the Fallout series and the Fable series, have highlighted this as well, but the concept of choice and decisions making last affects on characters hasn’t been executed as well as possible. Why? Gamers right now do not want these choices to be permanent. Downloadable content for Fable II allowed gamers the opportunity to shortcut around the game’s end-of-storyline decisions; everything from weight (gained or lost by diet) to the story’s final impossible choice are reversible now, albeit for a price. A similar effect is achieved in Fallout 3’s Broken Steel downloadable content, which ret-cons the game’s ending, adds new storyline content, and allows the player to continue playing with their character. In Fallout 3, enough good (or evil) karma will balance the other side out; some choices are permanent, but many aren’t. The emotional impact choice and living with decisions can have is washed a bit when it lacks permanence.

One of the highest achievements for all art — including television, music, movies, and, yes, video games — is to convey a strong emotion. Whether that’s happiness, sadness, fear, joy, or whatever the case may be, if a song moves you to tears or a movie makes you laugh for days, that piece of art has succeeded. With gaming, there is a unique opportunity to provide an even stronger emotional connection with a medium because of the interactive nature of video games. While games have not had that watershed storytelling event — there hasn’t been “a Citizen Kane of gaming” as of yet — watch how developers continue to find new ways to tell powerful stories that utilize interactivity and personal choice.