January 13, 2008

Most Of The Time

I forgot something important in my post last week, a little caveat which I should have dropped in as a postscript: P.S. Most of the time, this is completely wrong.

Writing in video games is rarely the tightly-integrated, sublime element that it was in Planescape: Torment. Most of the time it's perfunctory, poorly-written and poorly-integrated. It's a tertiary concern to the gameplay and it's not even a close second. Story is there because of some unwritten rule. But gamers don't like it and I'm going to presume for a second that developers aren't all that interested in it either.

Months ago, Soren Johnson wrote about why he dislikes story in games. I'm not going to dwell on this because it was ages ago and I want to at least maintain the illusion that I'm keeping things up to date. Unlike Soren, I'll never skip the dialogue in Torment or Knights of the Old Republic or Fallout or anything comparable. It's because, most of the time, I like it, but I see it as such an important part of the whole experience I can't imagine ignoring it. But I completely agree that there are games in which story doesn't belong. It's easy to single out, what, Civilisation or most puzzle games. Clearly no one is playing these for the story, nor should they.

I think there's a consensus by now on the laziest storytelling models in games. I've narrowed it down to two, and I'll talk about the second one later. But the most common offender is long, discrete levels broken up by brief cutscenes. There are a hundred games that fit this description and I really can't stand it. It enforces the artificial separation of story and games in gamers' heads. It's a capitulation to the canard that story can never be more important than gameplay and plot advancement can't be its own reward. The gameplay will have absolutely nothing to do with the plot, because that would take too much work and nobody cares anyway. The story becomes an optional extra presented as cutscenes that a lot of players will skip over. Seemingly, the only value it has to developers it that it creates a thin continuity between the jungle level and the ice level. It's the mark of a story that has nothing to say. On the other hand, you have a game like Half-Life, where Valve are credited with forging a bold new direction for video game storytelling basically by virtue of not being lazy.

It's these games in which story doesn't belong. A textbook example is the Ratchet & Clank series. Each level's fun, it's a new location, new weapons, new gimmicks, it's basically all gameplay. Then a cutscene on completion, then another level. When you get a cutscene it's like the teacher is sticking a gold star to your forehead. Frankly, it's a piss-poor reward. Since Ratchet's a comedy game, so the cutscenes are terrible. Maybe I just don't get it, or maybe the writing is completely asinine and dumb. I've never seen anyone actually commend the humour in Ratchet & Clank, but Insomniac will soldier on making their funny games just like they'll soldier on trying to bolt on a story to a collection of crazy levels even though so few people give a shit on either count.

It's easy to single Ratchet out because it's not very good at this particular thing. Maybe there's a game with this exact same model and the writing is excellent (I can't picture it.) Honestly, though, it's not the format which irks me as the statement behind it, the one I get from Ratchet and so many other games: We don't want to tell a story. Please don't make us. If that's the developers' attitude then the game is probably going to end up in this style, the one that allows for complete outsourcing of narrative.

I don't condemn anyone for that. More power to you; I'll still play your game. If you don't want to tell a story, though, then take a stand and please don't tell one. If you're not interested in saying anything then don't talk to me.

1 comment:

Justin Keverne said...

Doesn't Thief: The Dark Project basically use the form of storytelling you're describing? Each level is a seperate entity often with very little direct connection to previous ones.

There's some in-game narration from Garrett to tie things together, but it's really the briefings and cutscenes that forward the story.

Despite this structure, it's a better story and better written than Ratchet and Clank.