Here’s a short opinion piece I wrote for SFSignal’s Mind Meld. A regular article on this wonderful SF site, Mind Meld asks numerous scribes and pundits one question, and they all answer in their own special way. My special way is that of curmudgeon, judging by my reply. Published just before Christmas, the last I was involved in asked:
Q: How do you feel about the state of storytelling in video games? What do developers do right? What could they be doing better? What games do you think tell excellent stories?
And below is my answer. Click on the link above to see what the other fine folk had to say, although you can read my bit right here, if you wish.
Computer games are a difficult medium to write effective stories for. Traditional storytelling is by no means passive – television, books, films, plays etc all require a significant imaginative effort on the part of those enjoying them, but video games are a different creature. They’re halfway between actual experience and story, and that means a lot of tricks you can use in other formats just don’t work very well.
There are games out there with fantastically detailed backstories that play little part in one’s enjoyment of the game, being just a framework to set a bunch of missions against, and those where the narrative is so all-consuming the player feels like they’re on rails, running through a fairground ride (check out my article here) on MMORGS for more on this). Some games, sandbox 4X games, the better RPGs like Fallout 3 and Skyrim, present you with a story that you can stick to or ignore, but these can be just as frustrating as games-on-rails, as your own meandering quests lose any meaningful framework.
And this is because games need stories, and they need stories mainly because they are limited and limiting. If you were really trying to survive a rad-blasted wasteland or conquer the galaxy, you’d feel invested, but even in an open-ended video game adventure, there are a great many restrictions to what you can do, and many distancing factors between you and the world you are exploring/invading.
Furthermore, there’s none of the subtle shading of emotion and connection with other “people” that you get in real life, or, for that matter, in books, theatre or cinema. Even in old-fashioned wargames and RPGs, I have a greater sense of connection with the characters, probably because these games, unlike video games, are acts of collaborative storytelling. Perversely, this lack of emotional involvement is even more true of multiplayer online games, where most players’ focus on the mechanics of the game (and sheer rudeness, unfortunately) distances you further from the tale.
Some games have brilliant worlds, great scripts, and awesome levels of detail. But I’ve yet to play a game (and I do play a lot of games) where I’ve gone, “Wow, what an excellent story.” X-Com is probably the closest I’ve come to feeling that, and probably only because of the attachment to my men that I built up through nail-biting missions.
So it’s a question of engagement, and video games are not engaging. I love computer games, I love gaming of all types in fact, and although I have been very impressed by the backgrounds of many, I’ll turn to other forms of entertainment for a genuine story experience every time.