What's the story?

What's the story?
David Braben

By David Braben

February 3rd 2010 at 10:00AM

Our newest blogger casts an eye over the state of storytelling in modern gaming

For those of you that don’t know me, I started in the industry in the early ‘80s, co-writing Elite with Ian Bell, and going on to found Frontier. Frontier is one of the larger British developers, with 250 people based on Cambridge’s Science Park. In these columns I’ll be covering a wide range of topics, all sparked off by current game releases and events in the industry and all pertinent to game development.

Last week, I finished Assassin's Creed II: a good game, much less repetitious than the first, with an interestingly controversial ending to the story that I won't spoil for those who are not there yet. For me personally, it’s great that storytelling is coming ever more to the fore, albeit in a linear and (at times) slightly confusing form as here. Ubisoft Montreal has done a great job of back-fitting a fantastical story to the hazy real-world events of the time. I know many people simply ignore the story -hammering the skip button to “get past all that guff”, like the great character Vasquez in Aliens - “Look, man, I only need to know one thing: where-they-are” - but those people are missing out on so much.

To me the only failing in the otherwise truly excellent Modern Warfare 2 was that the story felt quite old school – as if it was written after the levels were in place, or by someone with that same ‘it doesn’t matter’ mentality. I too was left feeling that it didn't matter, so it might as well be skipped; a loose excuse to join together a snow section, an oil rig section and so on. There might as well have been a lava level, for all that the story mattered to me. The controversial airport section was a case in point – not only was it unnecessary, it felt tacked on, and didn’t fit well with the game.

Having said that, Modern Warfare 2 was a tour de force and by far best-in-class at what it does well, and its commercial success shows that. In this case I don't think a great story would have made much difference to sales; that is not why people are buying it. There is enough story to contextualise the fire-fights, which is all it needs. My point is that when we look back at it from the future – when the combat is no longer best in class – it will feel dull, like those almost storyless cowboy films of the '50s (not featuring John Wayne), shown endlessly on TV in the early ‘70s, but that have thankfully now been forgotten. Perhaps this doesn't matter with Modern Warfare 2 – it has made its money.

But because Modern Warfare 2 gets away with it, we shouldn’t assume others will in the future, including Modern Warfare 3 – especially without Infinity Ward's magic gameplay fairy dust.

An interesting comparison is my favourite game of 2008, Fallout 3. Though it didn't sparkle graphically, it was carried by the intricate detail of the little sub-plots within the game world, which fitted together very well, greatly enhancing the richness of the world for me. The other side of the coin was The Force Unleashed. This weaved a new story in the Star Wars pantheon, ending with Princess Leia getting on a starship with the Death Star plans – the same small starship that gets captured by Darth Vader’s iconic Star Destroyer at the start of the epic 1977 Star Wars film. A truly amazing thing for a huge Star Wars fan like me – the start of one of the most memorable films of all time. This excellent setting was tragically let down by the gameplay, which could have been so good given the subject matter.

In my opinion storytelling is increasingly a potential major part of a game, something I think that is likely to define this current fifth generation of gaming - it is therefore a foolhardy thing to ignore. Recent non-linear games like Fallout 3, Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins are virtually carried by their rich stories; the opposite of Modern Warfare 2, where the story is carried by the gameplay.

A major problem is that incorporating rich story early on in development runs contrary to the way many games are developed today. Old level-based concepts like ‘playable levels’ and ‘vertical slice’ look solely at gameplay and graphics – clearly important – but ignore story; something often relegated to a sentence in a design document, until some poor writer has to cobble something together.

The truth of the matter is that both storytelling and gameplay are important. Let’s do our best to avoid having ‘story’ games or ‘gameplay’ games almost as different genres.