Note: This post contains Bioshock spoilers if you somehow haven't heard about what the twist is. There also Gemini Rue spoilers shortly after. If you haven't played Gemini Rue, please avoid them because Gemini Rue is awesome and it'd suck to have the twist killed.
So, part one of storytelling: Involvement and Affection. It's a pretty simple concept and it's at the core of every single story in every single medium: Getting us to care. There is not a single piece of media produced which does not care about involvement, because involvement is the end goal of every piece of media. No matter what messages you have, no matter your characters, no matter your story, the true measure of success in a medium is involvement. That's not to say those aren't important. They're building blocks. Together message, story, and character combine and build upon each other to involve the consumer as much as possible.
So how does this apply to video games? Well, video games obviously share plenty of techniques with other media. However, video games are also fundamentally interactive, and this means that there are some things that video games can do far better, or just differently, than any other media.
First I'll talk about what video game storytelling, in its quest for involvement, shares with other media. In my opinion, storytelling can essentially be boiled down into three elements: Character, Story, and Message. Who we should care about, what we should care about, and why we should care about it.
First: Character. Pretty self-explanatory but also extremely important. Your characters are the emotional heart of your story and are what the consumer will be connecting to. You have to make sure that the consumer can feel some sort of affection for at least one of the characters, because there's nothing more off-putting than a story filled entirely with disgusting, unrelatable people. I'm not going to go much into what makes a good character here, as that's an entirely different article (but one I do plan on writing). But let's do a short little list of what I feel make good characters. This is of course my opinion, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments:
-At least one character has to be identifiable in some way: In my opinion, identification boils down into appreciating the character's motives. This doesn't mean that they have to be goody-goodies. Let's use the manga Death Note as an example: The main character is unequivocally the villain, and gets crazier as the series continues. However, he's doing what he's doing for a sympathetic cause: He believes that he's cleaning the world up by killing bad people, the problem is that this gradually transforms into him killing anyone who crosses him and then using his goal as justification. The reason why he's a sympathetic character despite being crazy and a horrible person, is because you understand why he's doing it. And you understand that in the same position, you might do the same.
|Here's a picture of Edward Gorey with a very large stuffed bear to break up this wall of text.|
The second element of storytelling is the story itself. In my opinion, the value of a good story is often both severely overrated and severely underrated. A good story doesn't work without good characters, but good characters aren't interesting without a story to work within. Now, in school they tell you that story is driven by conflict. Which is true, but not the best way of phrasing it. Instead I'm going to steal something from Scott McCloud: Story is driven by Want. Pretty much every story begins with at least one person (usually more) wanting something. In other words, story should be character-driven and should arise from your characters. It shouldn't feel like you planned out an entire lengthy, rigid story and then just slotted characters into it when appropriate. That's not to say that it's wrong to develop your story before your characters, you just need to make sure that it feels like your characters are actually creating the story, instead of being led by the whims of the author.
The third element of storytelling is the message. What does your story say, why do we care? This is perhaps the trickiest part of storytelling, but I need to get a disclaimer out of the way first: There is a difference between message and moral. Message is the point of your story. It can be a moral or an observation on the fragile state of humanity, or it could just be "explosions are cool". So, pretty simple. Most stories have a message that comes through naturally and you don't have to worry much about it. In fact, I'd say that it's literally impossible to write a story without a message of some kind. Even if you're doing some sort of post-modern story where there's no point and no message, that's the message. So if you can't write a story without message, why is it the trickiest part of storytelling? Simple, it's really easy to get carried away. See, it's easy to believe that a story only has value if it says something about our world, if it transcends escapism. I don't agree personally, but this article's not about that particular debate. The problem is that it's really easy to get carried away with a high-minded message, which causes it to eclipse both story and character. This is bad. Message is subtext. The key part of the word subtext is sub. Message, whether it's deep and meaningful or fun and silly, is meant to give a point to your story, to make it feel like it matters in one way or another. When a message eclipses story and character, you're left with preachy goop (or explodey goop if we're talking about a lighter message, but this tends to be most endemic with "deeper" messages). Perhaps an even worse trend is people taught that message is most important: bringing it to the forefront, fishing up dreary symbolism to support it, and generally ruining the story. Anyone who's taken a college English class can probably attest to this.
|Mmm, preachy goop...|
Every media has a certain degree of natural consumer involvement. That is, discounting all of the factors mentioned above, a consumer will be mentally involved with it to a certain degree anyway. On the low end of the spectrum is television, which doesn't require much contribution from the user. On the higher end we have "silent media" such as books and comics, which require a certain amount of mental filling-in to supplement what's presented to you. Games are unique in this regard, and kind of transcend the scale. On one side they could be compared more to television, in that you don't need to fill in mental details in the same way you need to with books and comics. However, you're also actively involved, unlike the passiveness of movies. Even in the most linear, cinematic game, I can still take my guy and repeatedly walk him into a wall for my amusement. This is a silly example, obviously, but it highlights what games can do that no other medium can: they can have direct consumer interaction.
So how does this interact with the three main elements of story? Well let's take it one at a time again. First: Character. The most interesting thing about character in games isn't the way you can implement characters, but the way you can leave them out. A story in other media without characters wouldn't really work (again, discounting experimental pieces), and even media with only one character through most of the story wouldn't work very well. But let's take something like Myst. There are characters besides the player in Myst, the warring brothers and Atrus. However, the brothers are trapped in books throughout the entire game and you don't even meet Atrus until the end of the game. The vast majority of gameplay time is spent walking around by yourself, fooling around with puzzles and figuring out exactly what's going on (emergent storytelling is something I'll talk about in another article). Imagine Myst as a movie: The Adventures of Genericman On The Island of Ridiculously Obtuse Puzzles! Or as a book: "the Stranger turned the lever. Then he grunted and turned the other one. Nothing. He then turned around and pressed the button. Then he turned some more levers. Still nothing." etc. etc. This probably seems obvious to most people who think about it for a second, but it's worth noting because it's something that no other medium can do.
|Though to be fair, Myst's unmarked lever content isn't nearly as ridiculous as Riven's.|
|THIS NEVER HAPPENED|
|Gemini Rue also gets additional points for actually giving a reason why it's always rainy in Sci-fi Noir Land.|
|Obligatory Metal Gear Solid reference: When cutscenes get out of hand. MGS4 had around eight hours of cutscenes, including at least one ninety minute one.|
|That's not to say there weren't awesome FMV games.|
Next article on storytelling will be a side piece featuring games I think did exceptional jobs on storytelling, as well as those that had flawed but notable approaches. Part Two will come after that.