The Problems

The video game biz is the wild west of story. No rules, no laws, no gurus teaching dramatic principles honed over centuries of trial and error. These savage lands of gaming are exciting to traverse, but they're also populated with bad story techniques and literary traps that can ensnare unsuspecting game creators. This section analyzes the common narrative pitfalls as well as the larger barriers to developing great story in games.


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1001 Genres

Not All Are Created Equal

Gaming, as an artistic medium, is the most diverse in the world. From tried-and-true FPS, TPS and action games to the latest Wiimote-swinging masterpieces, gaming's diversity puts film, TV and literature to shame. Multiply the number of game genres by the number of story genres (sci-fi, horror, mafia, etc.) and you're looking at the world's most exciting emergent art form.

When searching for great game story, however, it is clear not all game genres are equally suited for dramatic greatness.

Many game genres simply don't need good story to succeed. Puzzles, racers, sims, fighters, sports games and more do just fine without dimensional characters and clever dialogue.

Others genres, however, have proven fertile grounds for compelling drama. As previously discussed, these are the linear, single-player games like Halo, Half-Life 2, God of War and more. The genres include FPS/TPS, action, adventure and linear RPG.

Since great story is the singular goal, we'll focus on these genres exclusively. That's not to say other types of games can't aspire to narrative greatness. But when hunting for the best story games can offer, linear single-player genres have proven to offer the most flexible dramatic canvas available.

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Multiple Endings

The Mount Everest of Story

No topic is more controversial than multiple endings and branching story lines. "When it comes to multiple endings -- well, you might as well just break your writer's knees with a crowbar, as trying to make just the one amazing ending is hard enough," explained Susan O'Connor of Bioshock, Gears of War and Far Cry 2 fame.

Why is the woman behind some of the best quasi-linear games arguing against multiple endings and branching story lines? Great stories involve a "point of no return" where their main characters, having lived stable lives, now suddenly find their worlds flipped upside down. Linear story, it's argued, keeps the pressure on the characters, never giving them a respite from conflict until the glorious conclusion. Non-linear story, on the other hand, dilutes the fundamental conflict and saps a story of its dramatic tension.

However, fans of multiple endings believe dynamic, non-linear stories are the pinnacle of the player/game relationship. Since the player controls the character, it's argued, why not let the player make choices that influence the outcome of the story? A completely logical and valid argument that has spawned many legendary titles.

For our purposes, however, multiple endings cause a multitude of problems which can't be ignored. Great characters are, fundamentally, linear. They have a unified beginning, middle and end, which is to say their endings are justified in the very beginning of the story. A simplistic example is everyone's favorite, Star Wars. If Luke Skywalker is to destroy the Death Star, he must have a history of wamp rat abuse on Tatooine. If King Lear is to be devoured by his daughters, he must have planted the seeds for eye-poking and patricide.

More to the point, writing brilliant branching stories is a beast. After all, as Susan O'Connor points out, writing one great story with a satisfying ending is no small feat. Writing multiple great endings, each with interwoven narratives and multi-dimensional characters, is next to impossible. Can it be done? Sure. But when one great ending is so difficult, creating multiple endings becomes the territory of gods among men.

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The Blank Slate Character

Why Backstory Matters

Video game characters, unlike their film and television counterparts, oftentimes have no memory, no history, no discernible characteristics except for the singular ability to kill unending waves of baddies. This "blank slate character" is a staple of games -- after all, it's an easy justification for exploring the world, talking to strangers and getting into knife fights with space demons.

But do these empty characters have a place in great drama? Again, by looking at film, TV and literature, we see that the most successful stories never feature these blank slates of personality.

Why is this the case? Characters need to be active when the story begins. An active character is in the middle of action, pursuing an obvious goal with a clear outcome. Great characters have deep backstories and conflicts immediately obvious from the very first moment they enter the screen.

A good example of active characters with strong backstory can be found in Star Wars. In the first five minutes, we're presented with the tail end of a huge series of events -- Leia, in order to save her planet from destruction, has stolen the plans to the Death Star. Vader, dismissed as a geriatric (though stylish) warlock, is close to consolidating his control of the empire's forces. Last but not least, the two droids, now in possession of the Death Star plans, must find R2D2's previous owner, a saber-wielding badass who has waited his whole life to right the wrongs of his former sidekick.

That's some serious personal history dictating the first five minutes. And this isn't five minutes of Strindberg kitchen table exposition, but almost nonstop laser-blasting action. If Star Wars had originally been conceived as a non-linear story with blank slate characters, R2D2 might have headed over to Mos Isley to snuff hookers for profit and pleasure. But because R2D2 isn't a blank slate and has serious backstory, he does what he believes is right and we have a great story as a result.

When developing great story personalities, blank slate characters simply don't make the cut.

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Environment vs. Story

A Crippling Semantic Mistake

There seems to be a great deal of confusion regarding what constitutes "great story" in gaming. Half-Life 2, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Halo, Fallout, Shadow of the Colossus and more are considered to be great stories. And while they're all brilliant games, the praise earned is as much due to the fantastical world environment as to the character psychology.

Why does this distinction matter? Because this semantic mistake has caused numerous problems for the advancement of story in games. In traditional dramatic arts, to "write story" is to have creative control over the character's psychological makeup, relationships and the plot arc itself.

In games, to "write story" rarely, if ever, entails substantial changes to the actions of the central characters. Rather, the writer develops the "environment" -- ie: everything around the character. A game writer gives the world texture and substance which can, in and of itself, engender excellent writing but doesn't classify, in strict dramatic criteria, as "story."

Let's break it down. "Story", on its most basic level, can be defined as the relationships between the characters, from dialogue and romance to violence and antagonism, all wrapped up with a beginning, middle and end. Film, TV, plays and novels are "story."

"Environment," on the other hand, counts as everything else: the background, the local history, the NPC relationships, etc. The "environment" encompasses everything the player may see and experience, but has no effect on the central characters. Overheard snippets of conversation in Half-Life 2 or journal entries in Bioshock are usually cited as "great story" when they are, in fact, "great environment." By design, these glances into people's lives and histories are entirely optional -- thus, since they aren't designed to affect the central story in any way, shape or form, they can only be classified as "environment."

This shouldn't be misconstrued as a criticism of environment-centric games. In fact, the titles mentioned above are brilliant examples of fantastical environments, functioning like narrative museums of other people's lives. But in the quest for great story, understanding this relationship between "story" and "environment" is critical.


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The Walking Cliche

Twitchy Trigger Finger Mandatory

While the previous issues are easy fixes, the biggest, most difficult dilemma of gaming is how to justify 10+ hours of bullet-flying, sword-swinging, blood-and-internal-organ-redecorating fun. It is an issue with no simple fix -- the only stock characters appropriate for this type of endless violence aren't typically found in stories with the adjective "great" attached.

Let's recap the stock characters we all know and love. The most prevalent is the duty-bound, heart-of-gold marine (space, terrestrial or otherwise) who forms the bulk of new FPS releases. The silicone-jiggling femme fatale and the sword-swinging metrosexual find themselves fronting most action games, while the soft-spoken everyman with a fuzzy memory and a knack for small-caliber firearms has become the go-to-guy for next-gen shooters.

These stock characters' strengths are, in the world of great story, their biggest weaknesses. Namely, they are unstoppable killing machines. They never face serious danger, they're never morally confused, and they never back down from a fight. Their single, bloody task in life is the sole reason that prevents them from being great characters -- kill, kill, kill.

Consider the sci-fi and fantasy classics of film and literature. These great heroes, weak and dimensional, have nearly nothing in common with their roid-raged video game counterparts. Luke Skywalker does nothing more than complain for the first hour, Frodo Baggins excels only at getting himself stabbed, and Neo is a confused pretty-boy for the majority of The Matrix. Typical guns-a-blazing badasses, right? Not so much.

These are classic characters because they're vulnerable, confused and, most importantly, conflicted. Joseph Campbell, a figure close to the heart of every fantasy scribe, cites inner growth as the central element of great characters. When developing great heroes, the character arc must go from "weak" to "strong," not "badass" to "supreme badass."

On the next page we'll discuss how to bypass this issue of cliche central characters.

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The Single Protagonist Problem

The Ten Hour Interactive Monologue

No single character in the history of film, TV or stage has been able to justify 10+ hours of face time. In fact, a two hour movie with a single sympathetic character is so rare it could be considered a freak of nature. And yet, video games, arguably the longest dramatic format in the history of the world, have casts smaller than Geico commercials.

The fundamental problem of small casts in games is that levels quickly devolve into padding, filler and backtracking. When character vs. character conflict thins out, the player is offered contrived plot devices to justify more alien-killing and zombie-bashing.

So how do games compare to film and TV? Let's break it down. Major films, while appearing as hero-vehicles, offer many central characters with detailed interaction in the story. To look at Star Wars again, it features four central characters in the first 20 minutes...and that's before we even meet our protagonist. Overall, Star Wars features Luke, Han, Leia, Obi-Wan, Vader, Chewie, R2D2, C3PO, Luke's aunt and uncle, and the commander of the Death Star, each with his or her individual plots and personalized scenes. That's 11 solid characters in a two hour action flick.

This large cast of characters is also seen in Lord of the Rings, Transformers, Spider-Man, The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean, not to mention The Godfather, Casablanca, Pulp Fiction and nearly every classic play, novel and epic poem of the last 3000 years. At least a half dozen characters, if not more, are needed for every two hours of screen time.

A 10+ hour game should, to match the depth of the other dramatic media, offer an army of interesting, conflicted characters.

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Cut Scene Confusion

Demystifying the Options

The role of the cut scene in video games is a hotly-debated topic, and rightfully so. The problem, like the issue of environment vs. story, is one of definition. One man's cut scene is another man's waste of time. And yet another man's metaphorical journey is even yet another man's slit-my-wrists exposition overload.

There are a handful of ways to get drama into games. The classic cut scene (pre-rendered or in-game) takes control away from the player and shows a scene that, one hopes, moves the story forward. A more recent option is to remove the "cut" entirely, allowing the player to witness a scene through the character's POV, as seen in Bioshock and Half-Life 2. This is known as a scripted event.

This scripted event is impressive, but having the player act as the cameraman is more a dramatic choice, not a clearly superior alternative. In fact, the scripted event forces a false passivity that makes the central character nothing more than an outside observer at all times. Even if the main character wanted to lend a suggestion, which any thinking person would do, he can't. He's artificially passive. Great character is, after all, active character.

For our purposes, the in-game, director-controlled cut scene functions as the most dramatic method for integrating story into games. But it must be used in the right way, which we'll cover in the next section.

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