The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

Posted by Matt on May 19, 2011

You know what kind of bothers me about storytelling in games? When done ‘right’, it robs many of the characters of agency. That, to me, makes the whole thing less interesting.

Maybe I’m alone here, but when I read or watch something, a narrative, I kind of want it to be about people who aren’t me. I like to see creators create a glimpse of people who will experience different things than me, or who experience the same things as me, but react in a different way. It’s a sort of educational or mind-expanding exchange going on there. A testament to the breadth of humanity. You don’t even need to like the characters – if you can understand them, they can still be interesting.

Gaming is an interactive medium, obviously. The point of it is that YOU are in control of the action. One of the most frustrating things about games as a storytelling medium is that most developers seem to forget that that fact, and so the story is basically a side-element, a thing that gets in the way of the interactive stuff. Cut scenes are the main offenders here – they are an outdated method of storytelling in games, and are akin to someone coming into the room and forcing you to pause the game and watch a DVD of scenes that might as be completely unrelated to what you were doing before. Games like Bioshock and pretty much everything by Valve have shown us how to do it right, so hopefully everyone will catch on sooner or later.

(As a sidenote: I’m not against all cut scenes in games. As annoying as they can be, if they’re at least skippable, I don’t really care. It doesn’t bode well if you’re telling a story, but for the games that really aren’t trying to tell a story, it’s acceptable. Same thing goes for text reading in games.)

But therein lies the rub: once the story in the game becomes completely interactive, I find it less interesting. Bioshock and Portal make up for a lack of real character with atmosphere, and great dialog. But the fact remains that once the protagonist loses the ability to make decisions on their own, they cease to be a character in the story and simply become…you. The argument can be made that putting yourself in a different situation and making you think about how you would act under those circumstances. But you know what? I don’t care what I’d do. What do I learn from that? Besides, it’s not really me making those decisions – it’s me with a bunch of additional factors that will likely decide your actions just as much as you will.

I don’t really know where I want games to go, then. I know they should embrace the interactivity, which is the one unique thing they have. On the other hand, to fully implement that interactivity, they have to remove one of the most important part of storytelling. Can someone strike a balance? I don’t know. I hope someone can, because I’d really hate to not be part of a new wave of good stories. But right now…my issue remains.

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