You’re probably already disagreeing with me. That’s fine, but hear me out.
So, previously I opined that games haven’t managed to really “wow” us with a great story. I suspect there are several reasons behind this.
Over-reliance on techniques from other media
We’ve got such a strong sense of how a story is “supposed” to work, having grown up with traditional tales. Beginning-middle-end, 3-act structure, Hero’s Journey, etc. So naturally, with video games, we try to use the same techniques, only to find they don’t work very well. Follow the story too rigidly, and the “player” might as well be watching a movie for all the input they have. Try to keep it open-ended and you end up creating vast swathes of content to cope with all the possible narrative branches.
This is not to say that existing techniques aren’t of use; just that they’re being used where they don’t fit due to a lack of any alternative (“when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”). Designers like Chris Crawford (who kind of knows what he’s talking about) are heading in the right direction in trying to develop techniques that apply to games.
As well as lacking in subtext, I get the impression most games are lacking in a coherent theme. Sure, they may have one (as in, the designer had one in mind), but it often doesn’t come across that way to the player. Partly this is a result of the size of development teams; with so many voices it’s harder to coordinate the message.
An example of this is the phenomenon that has been termed “ludo-narrative dissonance”. The (pretentious-sounding) term is used for a variety of sins, but generally to describe the sense that the story and the gameplay are sending mixed messages. For example a game where, in a scripted cut-scene, the main character wrestles with guilt over killing someone, yet during gameplay the player (probably gleefully—it’s supposed to be fun after all) mows down hordes of mooks without batting an eye. Regardless of whether the term is useful or correct, it’s recognising a genuine flaw in a game’s ability to convey a story.
The player is the protagonist
A major feature of most stories that are considered “classics”—think Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and so on—is that the characters, and in particular the protagonists, come across as complex, fully-realised human beings. Their desires, fears, and needs drive their actions, and they develop and change over the course of the story.
But in a video game, the player is the one driving the action*. Granted, some players role-play, trying to put themselves into the mindset of the character, but most players act as themselves-in-character’s-body. They do things because they’re fun, interesting, or amusing. They may attempt to attack the character’s best friend, just to see what will happen. They may just want to kill monsters to let off steam after a stressful day. Thus, to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the game), the main character is a costume for the player to dress up in.
Games can, and do, provoke emotions in the player, and teach the player things about themselves or the world. But I’m sure you’ll agree that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a game to make sure every player moves through a thematically-appropriate character arc over the course of the game (especially if they’ve played it before).
That bad, huh?
So, does this mean the prognosis is bleak? Not at all. While there haven’t been any great video game stories, there have been good ones. Anyone who’s played a few games probably has their own favourites. But it will be tricky to not only make the storytelling work, but also make the game work. None-the-less, it is a goal worth striving for, and I look forward to the fruits of the endeavour.
* Or at least, they should be. That’s why different techniques are needed for this medium. As Crawford puts it, designers need to focus on the process of storytelling, not the (pre-decided) end result of the story.