The Glorious Cause

Great story is the final frontier of gaming. Graphics improve, gameplay improves, but story? It's that elusive ingredient, much discussed but never mastered, that separates the world of games from other narrative arts. And while talented game writers have become more prevalent in the last few years, the relationship between story and gameplay is an uneasy one at best. That's where VG Story Design comes in.

VG Story Design isn't a beginner's guide to story, but an in-depth analysis of the causes of, and solutions to, video games' inherent barriers to great drama. Games begin with developers and VG Story Design offers a holistic approach to developing games with excellent narratives from the ground up.

Additionally, for developers striving to create "the next hot thing," VG Story Design presents a way to leapfrog the competition in a surprisingly cost-effective manner. These methods show that great drama is, after basic gameplay, the single most important factor in determining the success of a title. Compared to exceedingly expensive multiplayer features and custom game engines, the benefit of developing great story is simply a no-brainer.

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Story vs. Gameplay vs. Marketing

Gameplay trumps all. If the gameplay is boring, confusing or unbalanced, it doesn't matter what the story is, the game will find its way into the slush pile at Gamestop.

That said, story plays a critical role in ways that aren't immediately obvious. Almost all new game trailers, be they story-driven shooters or free-roaming MMOs, feature roughly 40%-50% of story content followed by snippets of live gameplay footage. Head on over to your favorite game gossip house and witness this ratio for yourself -- story clearly takes pole position in game marketing.

Additionally, as gameplay becomes increasingly solidified around the tried-and-true FPS, action, RPG and other genres, story will play an even more dominant role in the commercial success of the game. In fact, the widespread adoption of game engines you can drive off the lot from companies like Epic, ID and Valve show that story and environment is, to many developers, more important than advancing FPS/TPS mechanics.

Moreover, one could argue that many games, ones with solid but unoriginal gameplay, succeed on their stories alone. Halo, Half-Life 2, Bioshock and Final Fantasy are, when it comes right down to it, narrative experiences first and foremost. While their gameplay was hyped as cutting-edge, in retrospect, without the engaging drama and engrossing environments, these games wouldn't have been the genre-defining successes they were.

Overall, story isn't just an added feature, like HDR lighting or online stats, but a critical element of a linear single-player game's success.

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The Hunger for Great Story

There's a rampant misconception that the game-playing audience, plebeians and proles to the core, simply don't (or can't) appreciate great story. All they want is guns and graphics and girls with silicone accessories. The reality is the hardcore gamers and leisure players alike are ravenous for great drama.

The proof is in the fanatical devotion to many of gaming's great titles. Half-Life 2 created such an emotional experience, legions of fans crawled through HL2's plumbing like story-hungry headcrabs hoping for some answer to the game's unanswered questions. And HL2 continues its critical success in the form of new narrative episodes with only minor technological and gameplay upgrades. If HL2 can be faulted for anything, it's not giving us enough story.

Bioshock, packed with objectivist happy-go-lucky hegemony and uncomfortable moral dilemmas, shattered nearly every rule in the FPS cookbook. With nary a battle-hardened soldier to be found, Bioshock's initial announcement had critics and fans wondering if they were in store for a proto-conservative romp in a pineapple under the sea. But when the first trailers were released, it wasn't the unique power-up modes or gameplay mechanics that got the fans OMGing, but the absolutely absorbing world with its rich histories and terrifying amoral narratives.

The Microsoft/Bungie juggernaut Halo created the first popular epic video game trilogy, enticing legions of gamers to wade through exceedingly long levels of alien-zombie Flood simply for a juicy story tidbit. While Halo claimed to be "Combat Evolved," the real selling point was neither the grenades nor the vehicles, but an engaging, cinematic experience combining wonderful directing, design and intergalactic armageddon.

And let us not forget Final Fantasy VII. The gameplay -- a turn-based RPG with no character classes and no unique weapons -- can hardly be called revolutionary since it was, after all, a devolution of the FF system in use for the last decade. Rather, the brilliant narrative experience, from the dystopian megalopolis to the haunting characters, complete with rich histories and tragic deaths, is what made FF7 one of the greatest interactive experiences in history.

Mass Effect, God of War, Gears of War, Fallout 3 and more are advancing what can be considered interactive cinematic experiences. And while these games have only scratched the surface of what's dramatically possible, it's their rich worlds and dramatic visions that make them stand out from the crowd. To say the game-playing public can't appreciate good story is simply an excuse for bad writing.

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Linear vs. Non-Linear vs. Quasi-Linear

Linearity is a hot topic in next next-gen gaming. Most of this heated dialogue makes the assumption that linearity vs. non-linearity is a winner-take-all scenario where the loser is relegated to the wasteland of bargain bins and failed gaming genres. The truth is that the game industry, like film and TV, is large enough to accommodate every dog-petting, food-cooking, hooker-killing genre under the sun. Let's start off by breaking down the terminology.

A "linear" story is, simply, a series of plot points that unfold in a predetermined order. Films, TV and novels are, save for a few choice exceptions, linear mediums. Games like Halo, HL2, Prince of Persia and Gears of War champion linear gameplay, offering a story that progresses from point A to B to C and wraps up in a scripted ending. Linear games are described as "filmic," and rightfully so -- they're often purchased by both big Hollywood studios and He Who Shall Not Be Named (the one from Germany, not Hogwarts) for adaptation.

"Non-linear" games are defined by player choice. Oftentimes, much of the game, including the ending itself, is optional. In non-linear games, the player is, in a way, the writer and director. Fans of non-linearity believe these games offer the greatest immersive story experience, allowing the players to freely choose their paths and act out their own morality on unsuspecting bystanders and woodland creatures. Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect, World of Warcraft, Oblivion and others champion non-linearity.

Also, non-linear games shouldn't be confused with non-linear films and novels. Non-linear films like Pulp Fiction, Memento and 12 Monkeys present linear plots in a disjointed manner. Unlike non-linear games, these films have a connected beginning and end and no deviation in character psychology.

So where do games like Bioshock and Assassin's Creed fit in? They aren't completely non-linear like GTA or WoW, nor are they as linear as Halo or Half-Life. Rather, Bioshock features a unified plot arc while still giving the player multiple paths and a handful of endings. The majority of the game is linear save for certain points where, when the player is allowed, the narrative unwinds, offering a certain narrative freedom, before coiling together again. These games can be defined as "quasi-linear."

Unlike the static worlds of linear games, quasi-linear stories can contain one or many of the following elements: branching plots, side quests, multiple endings, player-created characters and free-roaming levels. These quasi-linear story elements are, while giving the player freedom to pursue his or her own path, still within the framework of a larger, linear story.

Breakdown of Story-Based Games:

Linear, single-player: Halo, Half-Life 2, God of War, Prince of Persia, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, Zelda, Gears of War, Metroid, Doom, Quake, Resident Evil, Max Payne, etc.

Linear, multi-player: Army of Two, Halo Co-Op, etc.

Quasi-Linear, single-player: Assassin's Creed, Fallout, Dues Ex, System Shock, Bioshock, etc.

Non-Linear, single-player: GTA, Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, Far Cry 2, etc.

Non-Linear, multi-player: World of Warcraft, Phantasy Star, MMOs, etc.

Non-Story Games: RTS, racers, puzzles, fighters, sims, sports, musical, etc.

Up next, we'll take a look at the basics of story in games and dissect the barriers to great game story.

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