Friday, October 5, 2012

Video Game Storytelling: Examples of Good Stories

This is a side update to my storytelling series.  I thought I'd talk briefly about games that do good storytelling, or have interesting ideas but are flawed.

Contains spoilers for: Arcanum, Bastion, Braid, Fallout: New Vegas.

Note: I would argue that Civilization or Tetris has a story in the rise and fall of the player, but for the purposes of this article I'm talking specifically about pre-written linear narrative.

1. The Solids:
These are games that don't particularly innovate in the way they tell stories, but have excellent stories all the same.

-Grim Fandango: Ah Grim Fandango.  What is there to say?  It's my favorite game, there's that.  It checks off pretty much all the notches on the good storytelling checklist: Unique and brilliantly realized world, likable and well-written main characters, excellent villains, great writing, and every character has a well-defined personality no matter how minor (Tim Schafer's specialty).  Manny Calavera remains one of the best game protagonists, and Glottis is one of my favorite characters in anything ever.  The writing does a great job of balancing the funny and the dark.  The only thing bad I really have to say about it is that the controls kind of suck and some of the puzzles are a bit arcane.  It is still brilliant.  It's also not available for purchase anywhere and eBay copies are quite expensive.  I don't condone piracy, but I think this might be a case where using a torrent isn't a huge deal (its LucasArts' fault if they don't want people to buy their game).

-The Longest Journey: Another one of my favorite games and another adventure game!  TLJ is sometimes criticized for being overly wordy, which is fair.  In particular, there's one ridiculously long piece of exposition early in the game, other than that though I didn't find any of the dialog particularly fatiguing.  The writing is good, and the story is interesting and a bit twisty. During the game you ping back and forth between two worlds, which is a very effective means of creating contrast.  And I have to say that I appreciate that the fantasy world has  a bit more of a fairy tale feel (cottages, animal people, cannibal witches, etc.) as opposed to a more Tolkienesque thing going on.  Where TLJ's strength really lies, though, is in the main characters.  April Ryan is an excellent example of a strong female character, and has a very good character arc from bratty art student to responsible savior (and into disillusioned warrior in the sequel), and Crow is the rare example of a wise-cracking sidekick who's actually really great and lovable.   This is one of few games I didn't want to finish simply because I'd grown attached to the characters.

-Arcanum: I've talked about Arcanum's story previously, in my review.  Although the writing is good, what really stands out for me is the way it plays with fantasy tropes.  At the beginning of the game you learn you're the reincarnation of the ancient elf Nasrudin, who has to defeat the evil elf Arronax, who has returned.  But then you learn that the religion the prophecy belongs to is controlled by the enemy.  And you learn that Nasrudin is still alive.  And you learn that not only is Arronax the main villain, but he's repentant for his past atrocities.  It turns out that the actual main villain, Kerghan, had been using the prophecy to manipulate people to his own ends.  So is the prophecy true?  And, more importantly, does it matter if you fulfill it anyway?  Kerghan is also a brilliant villain.  He believes that, because death is peaceful and life is painful, that life is a distortion of death and that death is the true natural state.  Hence why he wants to kill everyone.  However, you can talk him to death.  You can have a philosophical debate with him and convince him that his viewpoint is wrong, at which point he will earnestly apologize and let you kill him.  It's really well done.

Fallout: New Vegas DLC: New Vegas has a good story itself, but I feel like the real highlight is the DLC story.  I was going back and forth on whether to put this is as an Innovator or not, but I decided here.  Anyway, there are four DLCs in Fallout: New Vegas, and they all link up into one story with one important theme: Letting Go.  Although each DLC has their own story, they each tie together into an overarching plot of the Courier Ulysses inacting his revenge against you, as well as a mini-plot across two DLCs about the escapades of the unhinged Father Elijah.  Both villains are obsessed with the past, and each DLC handles the theme of letting go and moving on in a different way.

-Psychonauts: Rounding out this list is another Tim Schafer title.  I could say pretty much the same things I said about Grim Fandango, honestly.  The writing is fantastic, the aesthetic is cool and unique, the characters are well-developed, and it again does a really great job of balancing dark and light (look up Milla's Secret Area for the most extreme example).

2. The Innovative:
These guys tell stories in unusual or innovative, but sometimes flawed, ways.

-Bastion: Bastion is probably most notable for its use of a narrator, who narrates pretty much everything you do in his awesome voice (it's not as annoying as it sounds).  It's also notable for how well it handles character development despite all of the dialog coming from the narrator.  Zulf was an excellently conceived sympathetic antagonist, and Zia was an equally interesting character.  It has a very tight group of characters, only four.  And only one of them talks.  It also has a very well-done choice at the end.  First you choose to save Zulf or not.  If you save him you have to drop your weapon, making it much harder to leave the final level.  And then, afterwards you're given a choice: Activate the Bastion to reset everything to before the world was destroyed at the cost of everyone's memory being reset as well (this option sides with Zulf, he lost his wife in the Calamity) or turn the Bastion into an airship and sail away in search of others (this option sides with Zia, who had no family or friends until she met the people who live at the Bastion).  It's not a moral choice, it completely boils down to whether you think it's better to try to redo the past or to just move on.

-Demon's/Dark Souls: Demon's Souls and, especially, Dark Souls are good examples of Lore-based Emergent Storytelling (something I'll talk in more detail about in my next storytelling article).  I'm going to talk about Dark Souls specifically, because it's basically a more extreme example of the same stuff in Demon's Souls.  Dark Souls has a very simple story, at first blush: The Flame is going out and people are turning into Undead.  You have to go turn the Flame back on so that stops happening and the light comes back.  But if you delve deeper there's more to it than that.  You meet optional characters with alternate perspectives and you don't know who to trust.  You learn much more of the story and world of Dark Souls through the descriptions of items, spells, etc. than you do from someone telling it to you.  Although the story appears simple, delving into the obscured lore reveals a lot of nuance and mystery.  Sometimes it's frustratingly vague, but it's certainly great for people like me who love to theorize.

-Braid: Ah, Braid.  Braid, Braid, Braid.  Braid is a profoundly flawed example of interesting storytelling.  Braid's primary theme is that of obsession, and "what if you could have as many retries in life as you wanted".  This comes through in the time travel gameplay, and each world has a theme that comes through in the gimmick for that world (a clone that repeats past movements, a wedding ring that slows down time, moving forward to move time forwards, moving back to rewind it).  In addition, the ending of Braid is absolutely brilliant and I'm going to spoil it.  Throughout the whole thing you're searching for your Princess, and are always told she's "in another castle".  On the last level, you find her being captured by a knight, and you then chase the knight.  However, once you reach the knight, time rewinds.  Now you're the on chasing the princess, who's desperately trying to escape from you and is saved by the knight.  It's a great example of how our perspectives color our world, and a brilliant inversion of the "save the princess" trope.  However, it's let down by the fact that at the beginning of each world there's a row of books with a bunch of arcane text vaguely relating to the story in them.  They aren't totally meaningless or hard to understand, but they're filled with way too much needless symbolism, and the books feel like a really clumsy way of getting across this text (a vast improvement would be integrating it into the gameplay, like giving a few lines with every puzzle piece you find or something).  This is especially noticeable in the ending.  After the brilliant last level, you're dumped into a room with a bunch of books for the ending.  It's pretty unsatisfying.

-Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri: A story?  In a Civilization spin-off?  What is this madness?  And yet, it's true.  And it works strangely well.  The story is told primarily through text pop-ups when certain significant things happen (usually researching a specific technology).  It's quite philosophical and pretty interesting (SMAC in general is a big grab bag of interesting philosophy), and it meshes strangely well with the actual gameplay.  The cuts to text don't feel jarring, they really do a lot to draw you in and enhance the atmosphere.

-The Last Express: For all intents and purposes, The Last Express has a normal linear story.  Except... the game is entirely in real-time.  That means it's up to you to do sleuthing and discover the plot and what you need to do while keeping with the time limit.  Or, alternatively, you can sit in the dining car for three days and then go to sleep for the rest of the trip.  The fact that you have to do real-time sleuthing really gives TLE a good detective feel, despite you not actually being a detective in the game.

-Half-life 2: Half-life 2 is kind of responsible for starting the whole set-piece, linear, immersive, no cutscenes shooter style.  There's good and bad to this approach.  On the plus side, it's highly immersive and you really feel part of the experience from the word go.  The most prominent negative however, is when exposition time comes around.  Because you can still move during exposition time, but you can't talk.  You're either left standing there like an idiot while people talk at you, or you're off running around like an idiot while people talk at you.  With no dialog options or real involvement in the dialog, the immersion tends to break whenever people start to talk for extended periods of time.

-Bioshock: I talked about Bioshock in my previous storytelling article, so check it out for the more indepth summary.  But basically what Bioshock does is manipulate the player.  The player is used to the false feeling of being in complete power in their linear shooters, but the reveal at the end that you're being mind-controlled the whole time basically subverts the feeling of control one has in a game and reveals that it's really the mechanics in control a lot of the time.

Note: Planescape: Torment isn't on this list because I haven't finished it yet.  Don't kill me! D:


  1. Good thoughts. I couldn't read some of them though, in the interest of avoiding spoilers!

  2. Oh, woops, I forgot to complete the spoiler list. One moment.

    1. Turned out I didn't actually have to add more spoiler warnings, just thought I did. Have you got to the DLC in New Vegas yet? They're great.

    2. Not yet. I've kinda abandoned New Vegas for the moment (which I knew would eventually happen), and probably won't be getting back to it for a little while since I've adopted a new "only 2 games at a time" policy (to make it easier to get immersed in individual games and not just keep jumping between a dozen of them at once), and Dishonored is coming out on Tuesday :P