Storytelling in Games (there may be spoilers)

I've been thinking a lot about stories in videogames for a couple reasons, partially because I still haven't been able to force myself away from Starcraft and Guild Wars 2 and pick up Assassin's Creed 3 finally.  Its the first time in my life that games with a lesser emphasis on story have held me away from other games.  That's not to say those two games don't have a story, but its not the biggest focus.  The single player campaign for Starcraft was really well done and by the end if Jim Raynor hadn't rescued the Queen of Blades I would have raged at the screen like Rush Limbaugh.  But as cool as the story was, its taken a bottom shelf to the multiplayer aspect for me - the story is over and yet I still play.  That hasn't happened before.

Guild Wars 2's story is alright as far as it goes - I can tell its painted in very broad terms to accommodate thousands of players playing several races.  They did a good job with it - giving your character a few options at the beginning to introduce a little variety.  But it didn't really grab me, and honestly I kind of phase out during the dialog parts so I can get to the fighting and figure out what new fancy toy I'm going to get later.  Another first.  For most of my life, once the story was finished in a game (or I was no longer invested) I stopped playing.  There are so many sandbox games that encourage you to play past the endgame but I never did no matter how much I loved the game.  That probably has to do with the addition of other humans in play - playing Guild Wars with someone else is so much more fun than playing by yourself.

But it got me thinking - are mechanics alone enough to carry a game?  For my part, I don't think so.  Here's an example - Jak 2 & 3.  I loved those games.  I loved the mechanics, I loved the art, the character design, and I loved the hoverboard business.  But once the story (which is awesome) was done, the mechanics that I had loved so much no longer held any appeal for me.  It was time to move on.  Without a reason to play such as beating other people or furthering the story, I ceased to be interested.

So what makes a game story good?  This has to do with my complete inability to pick up Assassin's Creed 3 again.  I'm tired of that story.  It feels like Lost to me now, just and endless string of mysteries for the sake of extending its appeal.  I stopped watching Lost in the second season and I don't care how many people tell me it "gets awesome later".  I'm not going to watch it - its too long and hard and I honestly don't care about any of the characters anymore.  Some of them I actively hate.  And that's what happened with Assassin's Creed for me.  I love Ezio, but he's not enough to hold up a whole game for me, and this one doesn't even have Ezio in it.  It has all the future people who are, lets face it, boring and annoying all to hell.  So that's one point; if your series doesn't have good characters to hold the story up, even the most gilded wordsmithing isn't going to save you.

And another thing - I came to this conclusion trying to explain the Mass Effect series to a friend of mine - good stories don't have to be complicated.  I once went to a discussion panel with Jim Butcher and one thing he said that stuck with me is that you can make a good story about anything.  He made a bet with some people on a message board that he could base a story on Pokemon and Ancient Rome and have it be good, and he came out of that bet with the Codex Alera series.  When I was explaining Mass Effect to my friend I put it into these exact words - "There are giant monsters coming to kill everything alive and you have to stop it".  That's been done so many times, but as long as you do it right that formula will keep working until the goddamn end of time.  Same thing with one of my favorite games of all time - Dragon Age: Origins.  Giant monster coming to kill everything, you must stop it.  And yet that shit resonated with me so much that I started writing fan fiction again.  No you can't read it.

So, yeah.  Games don't need a complicated story to be good.  Don't dress up your series in a bunch of mysteries for the sake of being mysterious.  Write compelling characters, flesh out the lore, work on the mechanics.  Make the mechanics part of the story, I don't know.

I guess what I'm saying is don't make me compare your series to Lost.

Look! Buttons!


I totally agree with your take on Assassin's Creed 3, while the concept and game mechanics look awesome I find myself giving up after 2 missions because of the rigid structure and my inability to give a F*** about any of the characters, however I am terrible at the game-play in Mass Effect yet have played the series 3 times through :) Story is important.

Also sorry for commenting on an old post, I followed a link to your blog and know nothing about Starcraft but this caught my eye :)

Well said. Nobody kills a game faster than the writer because they've come to write a novel. I'm seeing alot of studios hiring professional film & television writers when they really should go back to hiring game designers that double as both. If the writer isn't thinking about the gameplay they will invariably give you the seventh season of Lost.

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