I think story writers for games need to spend more time considering the mindset of their audience, and incorporate gameplay activities into their story writing.
Writers these days often imagine how a fictional character would react to events in a fictional world, and then write the story to fit that character. Then they go to the game programmers and say “how can we force the player to view the actions of this character’s story” and it ends up feeling kinda forced. I felt this way when playing Deadspace, Deus Ex: H.R., Assassins Creed, and the Far Cry games, while I have found myself subconsciously avoiding other games such as Bioshock and Dishonored for fear of the same.
Don’t get me wrong, those were all very fun games, but I personally didn’t finish the storyline of most of them. That’s because they are using a writing process that works well with books and movies, not one which works well for games. Also I’m bad about finishing game plots to begin with. Something has destroyed my attention span, not sure what.
In my opinion, a better approach is to imagine how an actual gamer would react to events in an actual game world. You tell your programmer to make that game world (or program it yourself) and then you write game events to fit the gamer.
Valve has been historically good at this, so I will use some of their games as examples of good ways to create an ingame narrative.
The player is motivated to fight enemies, survive threatening situations, and explore. Those are simply the things players do in first person shooters. Likewise, the game offers an environment where doing exactly those things advances the story and rewards the player. It need not be more complex than that. When the player shoots enemies, the scientists often thank him, making him feel like a hero. When he escapes a dangerous situation he feels like the environment is antagonistic as apposed to holding his hand and guiding him through the plot. Finally, when the player explores he finds clues to the greater plot of the game world (such as the man in the suit) which rewards exploration with a feeling of being immersed in an interesting world.
Half life 1 is a completely linear game, practically on rails, and yet because of the way it’s presented the player feels every choice is their own. It’s because the writers anticipated player choices instead of trying to force them that Half Life 1 was such a compelling narrative.
Portal is my favorite example.
Portal is marketed as a puzzle game, it looks like a puzzle game and it plays like a puzzle game. On the surface it seems the only unique elements are a new mechanic (portals) and an antagonist that mocks you while you complete puzzles. You don’t really feel attached to your character because it’s just an avatar in a puzzle game, you see your character the way Glados sees your character. All of this is designed to control your preconception of the game so that the writers can toy with your emotions later on.
Then, at what would be the logical end of a puzzle game, something magic happens: After you finish the last puzzle, when both Glados and the player are ready to discard their 1 Dimensional protagonist, the game allows the player to try what any typical gamer is going to try. The game expects the player to try breaking the game mechanics, it anticipates they will will try to leave the puzzle, and it allows it. I remember both me and Glados were equally shocked when it ended up working. At that moment, the game world becomes real, the characters become real, the stakes become real, and the player begins to become immersed.
I don’t know about you, but I sat down every night and casually did 1 or two puzzles in portal as if it were my daily crossword puzzle. It was amusing and casual. However, once I escaped the fire pit the game changed for me. Suddenly I was reading the end credits and noticing that it was 4AM and I had stayed up all night to play to the end in 1 sitting. I had been tricked into becoming immersed.
Now can you imagine if the game had been pitched and sold as a short story about a girl who escapes an evil robot? Imagine how that would have changed your preconceptions and ruined the “Wow” moment when you realized you could escape. What if, when you got to the flaming pit at the end, there had been a fast action sequence where a window popped up and said “Press X to escape the fire pit!”? Would that not have removed some authenticity from the feeling of breaking the game mechanics? What if Chell had voiced dialogue and had (through every puzzle level) constantly yelled at Glados about her feelings up until the end? I certainly would have been far less attached to my companion cube if my avatar had been sobbing in some other person’s voice.
Without the careful consideration for my state of mind, portal 1 would have remained another first person puzzle game with a gimmick. It would have been fully forgettable, especially since the portals mechanic had been done before (remember Prey?) but instead it is one of my favorite games of all time. (I did like Prey as well)
Left for dead is a simpler example but it shows more innovation in player-centric story telling from valve. In left for dead there is a bit of code that constantly monitors the players and considers their level of urgency and panic at any given time. Instead of having ingame characters react to zombie hoards, the game just sends more zombies until it is convinced that the player himself feels overwhelmed. In this way, left for dead succeeds at making the player feel trapped in a zombie infested place, instead of feeling like he is controlling a movie about a character that is trapped in a zombie infested place.
The moral of the story is that valve can teach us a thing or two about how to tell a story in a video game.
I have big plans for the story in Wayward Terran Frontier, because the game world was originally going to be a novel before I realized I suck at conventional novel writing. Instead, I want to take the sandbox gameplay elements from all my favorite sandbox games, and try to tell my story without breaking those elements that make the player feel authoritative over their own gameplay experience.
I plan to make a used sandbox.
I will give the players as much freedom as I can to form factions, wage wars, build stations, colonize space, explore and create the world around them etc. However, the world they play in will not be tabula rasa. It won’t be a pristine open wilderness to mold like minecraft is, but instead the game world will be almost entirely crafted out of history and lore.
The plot that I had envisioned for a set of novels, which I have endless notes and outlines for, will instead be woven programatically into both a procedural world generation algorithm and a gameplay event director running on the server. My intention is that the game will play like a sandbox and that the players will learn my story not because they have to, but because they want to. Furthermore, the types of storyline events that would normally fit into a scripted chain of campaign missions will instead exist as a natural part of the game world. Participation will be non-optional simply because it will be fully transparent. You are going to enjoy the plot because you will be part of it, not because you talked to an NPC and click the “please start plot mission 03″ dialogue option. Also, learning the story of the game world will probably give you an advantage when searching for treasure, and who doesn’t like treasure?
Clearly the gameplay elements of Wayward Terran Frontier aren’t coded yet, so most of this is still up in the air. Point is, the foundation is on paper and I intend to have it built some day. Only time and funding will tell.