How We’ve Gotten The Focus Wrong – Story in Games

In many ways, gaming has evolved quite a lot since the heyday of the arcade. Graphics, sound, music, controls, and mechanics have all been refined and built upon, and innovation continues to drive these elements forward. One element of gaming, however, has had a slower growth, and the way it’s being handled currently might actually be holding gaming back.

Game stories, early on, were little more than simplistic motivations disseminated in two-minute-long “attract mode” sequences on arcade games or shown after letting a console game linger on the Press Start screen too long (And that’s if they even cared to put story into those sequences, rather than demo gameplay). Rarely were they very involved or complex stories, because most gamers didn’t need an extrinsic motivation to go right in Super Mario Bros., or to shoot the people aiming guns at them in Virtua Cop.

At some point, however, it became expected of games to have involved stories and, with the arcade era over, the opportunity to tell longer, more complex stories arose. Gaming, as a whole, saw a shift toward a narrative focus, and perhaps it wasn’t ready for that. Outside of specific genres and franchises, game narratives are still fairly simplistic and, at worst, can take a lot of control and freedom away from the player. We get terms like “ludonarrative dissonance,” which refers to a disconnect between a game’s narrative and the player’s actions within the game, the solution to which is almost invariably to limit freedom and player agency, effectively making the player and his or her interaction with the game little more than the connective tissue between cutscenes.

It feels to me like video games are generally trying to be too much like other types of media when it comes to storytelling. Trailers and cutscenes are made to look like movies, and stories are told much like they would be in a film or a book. Video games are different, though. Player interaction sets them apart from other types of media. Game stories can be amazing, but they need to incorporate player interaction in order to achieve that or, at the very least, not get in the way of player interaction. In addition, games are special in that they can, rather than telling a set narrative, build a world for the player to create his or her own narrative.

Armored_Core_3Let’s look at Armored Core 3’s story. In the far future, following an unfathomably destructive war, humanity lives in a massive underground city known as Layered. Far too big to be ruled effectively by people, Layered is governed by a powerful AI known as The Controller. Within Layered, three megacorporations vie for dominance. The player takes on the role of a mercenary mecha pilot, known as a “Raven,” and hires his or herself out to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, strange happenings in Layered suggest that The Controller may be malfunctioning.

The story is fairly simple and the character motivations don’t amount to much more than the lyrics to the Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me. C.R.E.A.M., get the money. Dolla dolla bill, y’all.”), but I find the game’s narrative it more compelling than that of your average game with a story. The difference is in the way the story is told. Armored Core 3 has a minimal amount of cutscenes. In fact, most story details are given through emails sent from characters to the player, or within missions themselves. There’s no “ludonarrative dissonance,” because the game doesn’t try to establish the player as a set character. The Raven that the character plays is a nameless, faceless avatar for the player. Therefore, there can be no disconnect between the narrative portrayal of the player character and the player’s actions in the game.

USAbox-aczLet’s look at Ace Combat Zero’s story. The player takes on the role of “Cipher,” a fighter pilot employed by the fictional country Ustio military as part of a coalition opposing aggression from the country of Belka. The story is told through FMVs between missions, and those FMVs change depending on how the player plays the game.

Once again, the game’s narrative takes a back seat to the gameplay. It’s the connective tissue between missions. In addition, the issue of “ludonarrative dissonance” is handled through having the story adapt itself to how the player plays the game. If the player blows up houses and retreating enemies, the story will portray Cipher as a ruthless killing machine. If the player spares neutralized opponents and aids his/her allies, the story will portray Cipher as an honorable knightly warrior.

When looking at story in video games, it’s important to remember where it came from, and it’s important to remember that interactivity is what sets games apart from other media and that’s where the focus needs to be. When we start getting into concepts like “ludonarrative dissonance,” that tells me that the focus has been shifted from the interactivity to the narrative, and that’s how games become movies.