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Stay a while and listen

April 25th, 2011 by

Some games make do without any justification for their actions, fighting and racing games in the majority here as well as the totally abstract, Tetris I’m looking at you.  There is no rhyme nor reason for there to be falling blocks that disappear when they fill a row, it’s a simple and accepted occurrence much like in Lajamanu,  Australia where on Feb 25 and 26 2010 fish fell from the sky.

So I’m not going to be paying attention to these types of games, instead I’m going to be looking at games where there is a story of some description or another.  Now there are really three types of storytelling in games, that I’m familiar with at least.  Firstly we have what I’m calling the Valve stories. Here, while we control the body of our virtual avatar, we are unable to have an effect on the story, we are simply along for the ride on a pre-determined route.  Next is the BioWare method. Here we not only control the body but we can make an impact on the story and we can choose how we go through the narrative.  The final type I’m looking at is the Elder Scrolls style, where you’re given free rein and the story is there if you want it.  Which is better?  Which makes the more compelling story?

I’m going to look at the characteristics in each style before a brief overview of what I consider to be the positive and the negative elements of the style.

So without further ado, Valve, come on down.  The Valve style of story involves you being told the story with the most minimal interaction with it.  Gordon Freeman of Half Life fame was a silent protagonist and while not every Valve style game will have a silent hero, they will mostly have liner dialogue that the player is unable to alter.  Other features of a Valve style game will be that the story is very directed with little if any opportunity to engage in side pursuits that do not contribute to the drive of the main story.

So, you should now be able to identify this type of game, let’s look at what the strengths are; the area that this method of storytelling exceeds at, is its ability to deliver a concise and well administrated story.  You’re unable to deviate from a set path and so the developers know exactly when you’re going to encounter a particular area and so they can arrange some stellar set pieces.  This means that the stories can be tight and highly directed and is able to proportion action and story throughout the game without over doing either one.

All well and good, but this style isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, nope there are flaws, firstly the story better be good.  Bad stories in this style can be a real game killer.  Let me illustrate with an example, if you’re a restaurant and all you offer is cottage pie with chips for food, you’d better make sure it’s the best cottage pie this side of Mexico, because otherwise you’re going to be squashed by restaurants that offer a better selection.  Apart from the fact that game developers need to make sure they’re offering top notch cottage pie, they also need to ensure that they avoid another large pitfall,  Monotony. As this is a concise directed storytelling technique, care needs to taken to ensure that the game is more than a series of linier corridors of action that link to pieces of story development.  (Obviously if you wanted to be overly reductive you could say that most games are just that but with really pretty corridors.)

The man never speaks, but after being through all that he has, can you blame him?

Moving on we have the second method, the BioWare technique.  What are the characteristics we’re looking for here?  Well while the overall story is determined and you’re guided, you are given choice either in the dialogue or the way you tackle the adventure your presented with, though still with a guiding hand that prevents you from running too far ahead.

What makes this style good?  The player is involved in the story, though this may be in superficial ways or by the illusion of choice, there is still freedom that breaks from the monotony and allows the player a chance to explore the back-story of the world that they are in.  In short, you’re given breathing room to explore.  This means that the player is able to become more comfortable with the environment that they’re in and it means that more bizarre storylines can be used because there is ample time to explain the premise and make the play comfortable with what they’re experiencing.  Dragon Age took the time to explain all the races and factions to you, so you weren’t left going, ‘Huh, why are the people with buckets on their heads being such dicks to those bearded men in maxi dresses?’

Templars distrust mages for their clothes, not their magic.

The major drawback here though is that because the story develops more only when the player is ready for it  the player is never really forced into action before they have time to prepare.  This leads to issues like, ‘Shepard!  We need to go now!’
‘Yeah, in a minute.’ Followed by this…

One sec, just need some more Element Zero...


This can lead to the player disconnecting with the game and becoming accurately aware that they’re playing a game, which retracts from the effectiveness of the story being told.

The final style I’m looking at is the Elder Scrolls style, which is the, ‘there is a story, somewhere, go find it if you want,’ technique.  This is the ultimate freedom style of story, and as such has a plotline that is pointed out to you but you don’t need to follow it.  Leaving you more than able to go and have fun for a while and only once everything else is done can you do that main quest if you really want to see the credits.

The plus side of this?  Well you’re really able to develop a world but in story telling terms I find it hard to justify.  The only real positive I can find for telling a story using this style is that it does allow for a more organic development as the player can’t rush bull headedly through the main plot.  But the lack of a real drive behind the main story means that this delivery is undermined by the fact that the developers are not able to know how well equipped a player is or what they’ve previously met at a certain point of a story.  Oblivion tried to overcome this with its system that levelled monsters with the players but that didn’t really help the fact that I could have been to everywhere in the game before being told that I have to go to a monastery that I’d already raided for sweet loot.

Okay, now who shot me in the head?

The Valve and BioWare methods of delivering a story are both effective, they are different methods of doing the same thing, it’s the difference between a film and an episodic television series.  BioWare stories are very similar to Burn Notice, each segment is independent and adds a little to the overall story with the end of season episodes pulling it all together.  This means that DLC can easily be added in later and feel like it was meant to be there all along.  The Valve method though is more like a film, it’s got a story to tell and it’s getting it out there without distractions, which does mean that it’s hard to add DLC in at a later date, you tend to get missing scenes or spin offs (if I continue the movie simile.)  The Elder Scrolls style on the other hand is a blank piece of paper, there’s a story there but you’ve got to work at getting it out.

So for delivering a story - that being what I’m looking at - I’ve got to say that the BioWare style is the way to go.  The length of games means that they have time to explore side plots and develop characters while still pushing the story, meaning that you’ll care about characters at the end which in turn makes the story more engaging for the player.

Valve style games: Half Life, Call of Duty, Bayonetta, Little Big Planet, Heavenly Sword, Kane and Lynch and Gears of War
BioWare method games: Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Assassins Creed, Dead Rising, Red Faction: Guerrilla, Grand Theft Auto and Fable
Elder Scrolls style games: Elder Scrolls, Far Cry 2 and Fallout (3 & New Vegas)
Honorable mention to make your own story games: Master of Magic & Civilization series
This Community Content article was created by DangerousBobby, a member of our community. Community Content is your way of getting long-form writing and opinion out to the Midlife Gamer audience, an open platform to get something off your chest. For full guidelines on our editorial standards and how to create your own post, click here. The views expressed within are those of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the Midlife Gamer Staff.

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One Response to “Stay a while and listen”
  1. avatar CoinsMonter says:

    Interesting article; thanks for posting.

    I’d say I prefer these sorts of games, where there is a narrative and story to tell, than those where the story is purely a device to give the gameplay some aim. Games like Mario World or Doom were great and had a story, I suppose, but really it was all about completing each level and the background tale was irrelevant. Do we see many games like this any more, or are even the likes of Call of Duty expected to produce a narrative for the punters?

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