What's the story?

What's the story?

By Develop

May 1st 2009 at 8:00AM

The need for a storyline in any game can generally create heated debate among designers.

Some swear by the need for an informative and compelling storyline, while others completely disregard the need for any form of narrative at all, falling back on the argument that if it plays well enough you don’t need to hide behind a plot heavy story.

Personally I see both arguments as perfectly reasonable; I know, splinters in my arse. The way I see it, the genre of game has a massive influence on the need for story. Puzzle, racing, fighting, sports games and countless others have no need at all for a story, and these genres have some of the most incredibly addictive, fun and commercially successful games created to date. To see the proof of this all you have to do is look at games like Tetris, Mario Kart – SNES or DS – Gran Turismo, Street Fighter, Pro Evo, Madden; the list goes on and on.
 
So it’s clear that you don’t necessarily need an engaging story to have a fantastic gaming experience, albeit in certain gaming genres. Despite that knowledge, I do believe that some other genres are entirely dependent on a well written, structured and paced storyline, and if delivered in the right way can turn a good game into a truly great game.

For the rest of this article I’ll talk about how today’s games convey the story in different ways, listing the more popular methods they tend to use. I’ll also explain why I think some are more effective than others, and why one in particular has almost made me throw a controller through the screen of my TV.

VOICE-OVER
Using a voice-over to deliver your story is one of the easiest, yet least effective methods you can use. Trust me, I know this from bitter experience. It seems to me that the reason it’s not as effective as the others listed is the fact that there’s nothing visual to tie the information to, making it harder for people to stay focused and retain the information provided. I’m a firm believer that voice-over has an important part to play in games, but I believe that role is more in the realms of game direction as opposed to conveying the game’s storyline. A theory I hope to prove in time…

PICKUPS
This method has been used for a long time, and it can work quite well: recently BioShock did a decent job and Dead Space made it work as well as I’ve seen. The key here is to never use this method to deliver core information that is required to progress through the game, because some players will inevitably miss it and become lost. While the information provided in pickups is usually secondary to the central storyline, it can and frequently does add depth and flavour to the game world, but it can ultimately never be used for more than that.

FULL VIDEO CUT SCENES
This has to be the most expensive of all storytelling methods, but if you can get the blend of interesting characters, well written dialogue and skilful camera direction right, it can be so effective that you can actually keep players playing your game even if they’re not specifically enjoying playing it!

One of the most commercially successful games of our time has a control system that is entirely broken, yet it has mastered this method to the point that I continue to play just to see where the story will take me.

This mechanic also creates one of my biggest pet hates in games, the unskippable – yes it’s a word – cut scene, that has a nightmarishly hard section right after it and a respawn point just before it. Why in the name of GoW would anyone do that to the player?

INTERACTIVE CUT SCENES
I think this is the most difficult, yet rewarding, of all story-telling methods. The size of the design and production task is massive due to the fact that you have a fully controllable player character in the middle of the scene, and nine times out of ten they’ll be doing everything in their power to break it. I’m not going to attempt to list all of the things that can go wrong and which games have got them wrong because the list is simply too long for this article.

All I will say is no game has even come close to Half-Life 2 in this area, Valve is simply years ahead of anyone else. Sometimes as a designer all you can do is tip your cap, say well done and try to learn from the guys at the very top of their game.