It’s easy to forget that games are still an artform very much in their infancy, given how dominant they have become in pop culture, and there’s a danger that such a rapid rise in popularity has left the medium running before it can walk, narratively speaking.
We’re still working out the best way to tell stories in games. The default setting is to simply look at what movies are doing and copy that, sandwiching short animated films in between slices of thick buttery gameplay and expecting the player to sit back and digest the mouthfuls of exposition like good children. And, let’s not be snobby, that approach works. We’re used to it, the players are used to it, and if most of them press A to skip after a few minutes, does that really matter?
Well, yes. It does matter, and the fact that a creative media actively encourages its audience to skip the story is quite worrying, when you think about it. Would filmmakers put on-screen prompts on a DVD reminding viewers they can jump straight to the exciting bits? Would an author suggest the reader skip ahead to the next chapter because there’s a boring bit coming up?
That’s what we’re doing when that “skip” icon appears. We’re acknowledging that the audience isn’t really interested, that “story” in games is an optional extra and telling them it’s OK to bypass it and get back to the fun stuff. They’ll pick it up as they go along, surely. Here’s the goodies, there are the baddies, space soldier man go shooty shoot, right?
We’re doing ourselves a gross disservice by pandering to short attention spans in this way, and what makes it all the more galling is that it’s not neccesary. Often, the problem isn’t that the story isn’t any good, it’s just being told in the wrong way.
People play games because they want to play games. It’s simple and obvious, but it’s too often forgotten where story in games is concerned. The narrative is doled out in non-interactive chunks, like medicine. As soon as you take that control away from someone, they cease being a player and become a viewer. Their role in the experience has just been completely and utterly diminished. “Sit back,” you’re saying, “We’ll do this bit.” You might as well walk into their house and snatch the joypad from their hands. For someone to buy a game and then sit, passively, joypad in hand waiting to be allowed to join in is like putting on your swimming costume and then being told to sit in the cafe next to the pool.
It all comes down to inherited ideas of what story must be. There’s a tendency to defer to the cinema template whenever story comes up, because that was the best model available. But story for film is completely different to story for games. In film, the story is everything. It’s what gives a movie its structure. In a game, it’s the gameplay that provides that structure. That’s why there’s this grinding friction when the cutscene comes crashing in – you’re changing gears with no clutch, swapping one structure for another. It’s only because gamers are used to this clumsy method that we can get away with it at all.
In games, the story should provide the motivation and explanation for the real story of the game, which is taking place in the player’s head. That’s what we, as game designers, have to accept: we have very little control over the real stories in our games. Those belong to the player. We merely light the fuse and let them ride the rocket.
This isn’t just true of the epic and open role-playing games like Mass Effect and Skyrim. It’s true of all games, right back to the earliest days of the arcade. Space Invaders didn’t need a story because it generated a new one every time it was played. Every laser bolt that just missed, every UFO downed, became part of a glorious temporary narrative that existed only in that moment, and only for that player.
The technology may be more sophisticated today, but that’s still the sort of story that games tell best, because those are the stories that only games can tell. These are stories that transcend genre, and apply to all games, from Call of Duty to Canabalt. The player is immersed, in character, and never told to sit out of the action, reminded that their story only happens when we say so.
Our job is not to be storytellers but world builders. We have to let go of this idea that we own the narrative. We erect the scenery, we provide the other characters and the guiding framework, but the player must be their own hero in their own story. We provide context, rather than imposing content.
Of course, you may be thinking, isn’t this a strange argument to make for a company that aims to bring more writers from other media into games? Not really. Professional screenwriters and experienced comic writers don’t benefit games design because they understand the three act structure or how to fill 22 pages with action-packed panels. Their skill is insight and economy. They know how to establish character in just a few lines, how to sell a plot twist without belabouring the point, how to deliver exposition in a way that feels natural and how to make the supporting cast linger in the memory without losing forward plot momentum.
This isn’t to say that cutscenes should never be used, but they are a crude tool and one that does nothing to showcase what makes games unique. Games are not movies. That’s what makes them so great. By thinking more carefully about how we play to the strengths of the medium, we enable our players to tell better stories a thousand times over. Let’s make it happen.