While video games are primarily known for their gameplay and interactivity, each new generation has increased the importance of various other qualities of the medium. Graphics, music and sound have all made impressive strides in the past few generation, to the point where gaming is unrecognizable compared to how it was even a decade ago, let alone three. By comparison, however, storytelling in video games has probably made among the largest strides by comparison. In this medium, we have gone from having either no context or a sentence-long blurb to having multiple hours of cutscenes in the average game.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been any shortfalls in the process, even toward when story in games has become so ubiquitous in the industry. Sometimes, an emphasis on story can hurt a game. Take for example, Ducktales Remastered. While I personally liked the game’s various cutscenes, which were literally scattered throughout each stage, many gamers threw a temper tantrum about the entire affair, claiming that they wreck the game’s overall flow. Of course, a later update added the option to automatically skip most of the game’s cutscenes, but the damage was done. Somehow, putting some story elements into a game based on a Saturday morning cartoon of all things ruined it for everyone.
Of course, the lessons one should probably learn are that some genres are more conducive to involved storylines than others. To this day, fighting games have had some major difficulties with implementing cohesive storylines and plots, just due to their history. In the fighting game genre, canonical events weren’t usually determined until the sequel, as there were several playable characters, each with their own unique endings and in many cases, one character’s ending would contradict another’s. Most modern Japanese (or Japanese-influenced) fighting games opt for fleshed-out story modes for each playable character that resemble a visual novel, with specific fights placed between certain segments for flavor. Netherrealm Studios did something similar in both the latest Mortal Kombat game and Injustice: Gods Among Us, substituting the visual novel portions with cutscenes and delivering one unified storyline with multiple playable characters, though generally not the entire cast. Many gamers preferred NRS’s style of delivering narrative and hope to see more companies attempt something similar in the future. The majority of long-time hardcore fighting game fans, however, don’t really care about these or other single-player modes, preferring a greater emphasis on the base gameplay mechanics.
Recently, a new concept has started to become popular within the video game journalism community: ludonarrative dissonance. Ludonarrative dissonance occurs when there are inconsistences between the gameplay and the storyline of a video game. The Bioshock series is among the most popular examples used to explain this: as the thoughtful exploratory nature of the games’ protagonists as depicted in the game’s storyline is considered by some to be at odds with the violent gameplay the series is well-known for. A simpler example would be how Aerith died permanently in FFVII, when Phoenix Downs are both plentiful and capable of resurrecting the dead. Since storyline is becoming more and more an integral part to most modern video games, this is something that must also be kept in mind.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of exclusively using cutscenes to depict story in video games. Some games have chosen a more “interactive” route in certain cases, allowing for in-game conversations that mimic the traditional cutscenes. A few games that utilize this include Arkham Asylum and the Half-Life games. While this does have the disadvantage of breaking immersion by allowing players to retain some control, it has the added benefit of making the transition between gameplay and story sequences more seamless than the traditional cutscene method. Not to mention, I tend to think it’s kind of fun to mess around with the in-game camera, attack them without doing any real damage or even just interrupting people in-game when given the option.
There’s also the method of hiding story materials within the gameplay itself. Games like the Bioshock series, Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls and the aforementioned Arkham Asylum all hid various items containing backstory and other context for the game’s story in the game itself. Retelling various characters’ and locations’ backstories through journal entries, signposts and even audio recordings does an even better job of creating an immersive storyline than all the cutscenes in every video game in the past decade combined and I would love to see more games attempt this sort of storytelling. Of course, this has the added disadvantage of “cheating” less adventurous players out of a significant portion of the deeper storyline, while cutscenes are generally available to everyone. If I’m going to be honest though, I think that’s worth it.
To wraps things up, here are some DOs and DON’Ts for any game developers, fledgling or otherwise, who happen to come across this article. DO allow for skippable cutscenes, some people aren’t really big on these things and the fact that this still isn’t an industry standard is disgraceful. If you’re going to prevent people from always being able to skip cutscenes, at least allow them the option to skip after the first time they’ve seen it. Forcing gamers to keep rewatching the same damn cutscene that takes place before that boss they just can’t beat is cruel and unusual punishment.
DON’T choose a game genre that doesn’t suit the story you’re trying to tell, and vice versa. For example, if your main character is supposed to be some kind of a pacifist, an action hack-and-slash game probably isn’t the best choice for your particular universe. And for the record, this isn’t a jab at the Bioshock franchise. In fact, I don’t even believe that the Bioshock games suffer from ludonarrative dissonance: both Rapture and Columbia have very seedy underbellies and survival is the name of the game.
DO make an effort to allow players’ actions have some kind of tangible effect on the gameplay. Even if it’s something as minor as some subtle aesthetic changes or some slight variation in some dialogue later in the game, this little parlor trick tends to make story-oriented gamers happy. Plus, it adds to replay value, which is always good to have in general. As long as it makes sense within your game’s narrative and you don’t go overboard with it, it should work out fine.
Speaking of overboard, DON’T oversaturate your game with cutscenes. If I wanted to sit through 7+ hours of uninterrupted non-interactive segments, I’d go for a TV show or movie binge on Netflix, because that’s what TV shows and movies are good at: being passive entertainment. If you ship a game with more hours of cutscenes and cinematics than gameplay, you have failed as a developer. A good rule of thumb, at least in my opinions, would be to shoot for at least 3 hours of gameplay for every hour of cutscenes in a single-player campaign, bare minimum.
DO try to achieve a proper tone for the storyline you’re trying to tell. Not everything has to be an epic, serious storyline: take a look at how well Sonic ’06 turned out. Light-hearted storylines or straight-up parodies shouldn’t be as rare in gaming as they are today. We need more games we can just laugh at. On that note, DON’T wedge a story into a game if you can’t make it work. Despite the fact that all single-player games seem to be moving more and more towards story-heavy experiences, I think there is still a need out there for some arcade-style games with minimal storylines. The backlash against Ducktales Remastered supports my point here. The most important thing to remember is that if your focus during development is on telling a story, make sure it’s one worth telling in a game, instead of some other medium. Interactivity should be key to your story in some form, even the crummiest fighting game storyline got that one right, because even at worst, it was the bare minimum of what could be considered a Choose Your Own Adventure, and a CYOA is more interactive than the stories in most other forms of media.
In the end, regardless of how important stories become as video games continue to evolve and grow, they should never come at the cost of gameplay. Even in the case of visual novels, where the most complex form of interactivity you’re likely to find is cycling through multiple menu choices, unless they include some kind of weird mini-game. Excising the gameplay from a video game is like taking the video out of television or movies, the sound from radio and even the words from books. In some cases, you’ll be left with something, but the main point of that particular form of media will be lost on its audience.