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Sam Lake on Video Game Storytelling 314

loladeutsch writes "What makes for a great story in a video game? Sometimes, with all the innovative development and cool graphics the actual story a game has to tell can get lost in the shuffle, or at least can seem to be an afterthought. When a game arrives on the shelves that presents one of the more engrossing stories we've seen in awhile, it's worth noting. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne has been recognized by many people with their heads screwed on straight as a benchmark in video-game storytelling. "
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Sam Lake on Video Game Storytelling

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  • Context (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mfh ( 56 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:19PM (#9011755) Homepage Journal
    I see the problem with video game stories as a systemic one, and Sam Lake touches on this when he identifies novels as a singular effort, and video games as a team effort. When you have a bunch of people with different backgrounds working on a project, quite a bit of infighting can occur. Plus there is the aspects of how stories affect the gameplay, and the scaling of the combat in games. The story may call for particular systems to be in place that are impossible, so it is critical for authors to fully understand the game design process to interpret these events into a literary context.
  • by Lane.exe ( 672783 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:21PM (#9011774) Homepage
    I call them RPGs. It may be noteworthy when an FPS-type game like Max Payne has a good story line (beyond something like: evil monsters have wiped out pretty much everyone but you. Kill them all!), but storytelling in video games is far from dead.

  • by darth_MALL ( 657218 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:21PM (#9011778)
    Managing to intergrate the narration into the gameplay (as seamlessly as possible) is a huge key to effective storytelling and immersion in games. A few of the good ones would be Half-Life and MOH:AA.
  • by wookyhoo ( 700289 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:23PM (#9011808) Homepage
    So long as it compliments gameplay. I love playing a game that I feel a part of, but at the same time, I'm not going to continue playing it just because of a cool story.

    One has to compliment the other, and I think most of us would prefer the games that are better to *play*, rather than those we feel a part of because of an excellent storyline.

    I still play Quake 1 ;)
  • The article noted that the script to this installation of "Max Payne" is four times longer than a movie script.

    Now, I haven't played the game, but if that means it's an eight-hour movie with a little "Okay, move from point A to point B now" thrown in.. no thanks.

    I feel that way about some of the Final Fantasy games. I remember thinking "Wow... 90 minutes in... wonder when I'll, you know, fight a battle."

    That stuff was great when I was 14 and on summer vacation. At 25, I want something I can *play* in 2 hours.. not "get all set up to start playing."
  • Even better (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bravehamster ( 44836 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:24PM (#9011822) Homepage Journal
    Max Payne 2's storyline was pretty good, but it got downright pretentious at moments, trying for an emotional depth that the characters just didn't deserve. And you can forget about subtlety.

    No, the best storyline I've ever seen in a game is the Marathon series from Bungie. They've been out for over 9 years, and people are still discovering [] new depths to the story after all this time.

  • by Zorak Man ( 732141 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:26PM (#9011865)
    A 2 hour game would be great, if it cost $7.50 like a movie ticket, not $50. I like to get my moneys worth out of a game.
  • Lost in Gameplay (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Jack Zombie ( 637548 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:29PM (#9011929)
    (...) Sometimes, with all the innovative development and cool graphics the actual story a game has to tell can get lost in the shuffle.

    With Max Payne, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Only game where the story justified the gameplay was Half-Life, and I really can't think of any other videog that reaches its level.
  • by WinnipegDragon ( 655456 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:30PM (#9011941)
    This is one of those schisms that I have no idea how to deal with in gaming. First of all, the more storyline there is, generally the more linear the gameplay is. Max Payne had an interesting story, but little freedom.

    On the other hand you have games like Morrowind. Great sense of freedom and that contributed to the quality of it's gameplay. As a side-effect, the storyline was easily mangled, and you could break the main quests by doing things out of order, going to where you shouldn't be too early, etc...

    Until we reach a point where the hardware is powerful enough that programmers can create an adaptive enough AI, Storyline will just be a euphemism for 'railroading'.

  • Problem (Score:3, Insightful)

    by cubicledrone ( 681598 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:30PM (#9011949)
    The basic problem is that video games are a poor format for story telling. Good stories require fine control of plot, pacing, character, setting and theme. The more control is given to the player, the less control the writer has over the elements of good story telling.

    That said, there are a number of ways a good writer could dramatically improve the quality of numerous video games, and help improve various genres. Most publishers now take great delight in emphasizing the total lack of literature in their products.

    If video games are to truly become meaningful, then they must convey meaning.
  • by frankthechicken ( 607647 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:32PM (#9011966) Journal
    , Grim Fandango, damn am I spotting a trend here?

    Should it be so suprising that pure action games generally have relatively weak story lines(with the exception of a few), whereas the more thought provoking ones(in terms of gameplay) tend to have a better plot?

    No correlation to movies is there?

    Gameplay at the moment tends to be driven by arcade desires, I sort of feel we are still in the transition from the stand up arcade machine instant gratification level of gaming to a more time consuming home leisure pursuit.

    Hence I feel the storylines will slowly get better as developers learn more about what is possible for a succesful game for the home, giving alternatives to the wham, bam , thank you kind lady style of today, in favour of a slower pace, yet ultimately more rewarding experience. Which of course are far greater suited for plot and story telling.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:33PM (#9011991)
    I used to think story didn't matter much at all in games. I liked twitch games (arcade, FPS, action, etc). For these kinds of games, story isn't all that welcome unless it's integrated into your experience, say in the way Half Life did it. (That was a milestone in interactive story telling right there, without ever taking away interaction to do it).

    Over time, we've seen genres of games which, if it weren't for the pretty graphics, there'd be no real reason to play them. Thankfully, it's a genre that has matured and can be enjoyable. I'm referring to games like Silent Hill 2 and 3, where the actual interaction on its own is pretty clumsy, but the story is very interesting (well, in SH2 it was... in SH3 it was too convoluted and hokey).

    I personally don't like the original Max Payne way of story telling too much. I don't like being narrated to. I want to be part of the experience.

  • by LilMikey ( 615759 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:39PM (#9012074) Homepage
    A movie storyline... Jeez... I wish they'd get a clue and stop trying to rip movies directly-to-game. Movies are designed to tell a story, Games are designed to put you in a story...

    If anything they should be going the other way!
  • by mr.capaneus ( 582891 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:48PM (#9012194)
    I think (I hope) he meant. If he has a 2 hour block of time, he would like to be able to get some playing done in that time, rather than watch a CG, fight one battle and then look for a save point because he needs to go somewhere. If that is what he was saying, I agree whole-heartedly.

    This is off on a tangent but I also think ALL games should allow you to save at ANY time. Maybe they should allow you to save and only restore that save game once, but it really sucks when I am playing some game and have to go somewhere only to not be able to find a save point. Final Fantasy is one of the most irritating games in that regard.
  • Re:Context (Score:4, Insightful)

    by shut_up_man ( 450725 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @05:04PM (#9012415) Homepage
    Most development teams these days have a Project Lead, who effectively is the "author" for the game. There's plenty of room for collaberation and individual expression, but that person is the one with the vision and the company clout to say stuff like "No, Gordon Freeman does NOT have nipple rings. Redo this whole thing."
  • by bonch ( 38532 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @05:16PM (#9012557)
    Deus Ex, absolutely. Deus Ex was one of those games I bought expecting a standard Unreal-tech shooter of the time.

    Spoilers. It even started out boring. You're just an agent. The only hint of a unique focus on backstory is the conversation with the NSF leader in the statue, who rattles on with historical taxation statistics.

    But once you finish the statue mission and enter UNATCO HQ, you start meeting the characters, start getting hints of something greater. By the time you're out of New York and Paul has turned to the side of the NSF, you've tapped into these greater realities woven into the game, and eventually you're flying to Hong Kong, infiltrating VersaLife, destroying a nanotech constructor, and so forth.

    The game starts out as a standard "agent" game with some interesting takes on aiming and skill systems, and ends up as a vast conspiracy game with Illuminati, Knights Templar churches, and weird alien laboratories. Not to mention Area 51.

    One of those games that "feels" completely different by the time you reach the end, like it's a whole new game instead of what it was when you bought it. I really enjoy games like that.
  • by lactose99 ( 71132 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @05:34PM (#9012756)
    Fallout and Fallout II, some of the best RPG material I ever had the good fortune to purchase (and on the cheap). While the graphics don't really add-up to much in today's market, the story and depth of choices in the game made it an incredible experience.

    Besides, what other games allow your character to completely forget his main quest and become a drug-addicted sex-fiend extortionist?
  • by Performer Guy ( 69820 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @05:57PM (#9013012)
    I am a game programmer right now, and some of the game designers I've worked with were obsessed with the frikin' story. So much so that they were terrified by any kind of freeplay, they wanted to control every event and sequence of events in the game. In other words they didn't have a clue about game design. Many game designere aspire to be film producers or do something cinematic, they should get the hell off of game teams and go do it instead of inflicting their ego on game buyers and game companies. It's not about the story stupid, it's about the game. Story is fine so long as it isn't rigid and doesn't get in the way of making a great game.
  • Re:No. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by BagOBones ( 574735 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @06:05PM (#9013101)
    I still don't think your argument holds water.

    Many books have been written then adapted to screen without the author giving thought to the limitations of the movie effects at the time. It's up to the director to figure out how to best represent the story using the story as a guide.

    In a game if it is too difficult to do real time you make it a cut scene. The REAL problem is game-developers and lead designers not figuring out creative ways to incorporate the player more and rely less on cut scenes.
  • Re:Even better (Score:2, Insightful)

    by C0rinthian ( 770164 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @06:43PM (#9013501)
    Call it a hunch, but I think everyone is visitor #7777777. The number 7 is a very significant number in the Marathon series, and people are STILL digging up "hidden 7's" in the games. So, the visitor number is really just an inside joke.

    It's a shame Bungie has come to PC's, as it was really the ONLY thing Mac gaming had. Pathways, Marathon, ONI, Myth.... All GREAT games.

    And IMHO Halo is a worthy successor to the Marathon lineage. (Hell, if some of the possible connections are fleshed out, it could qualify as a sequel!)

    I'd have to say the best video game stories are the ones you can talk to other people about. Who cares if I say "Damn, one time I killed a bunch of flood with my shotgun, blah blah" - but when you start talking about getting off that last spell right after Kefka smacked you with "fallen angel" to beat the game with a party total of 4hp, now we're talking!

    I dunno how many times I ran out of ammo fighting Flood in Halo, and I really don't see the difference between that and beating Kefka on 4hp. The great thing about FFIV was the plot and character development. If the final battle with Kefka was completely scripted (like the duel between Cloud and Sepheroth) and the outcome pre-ordained, it would still have just as much emotional impact. Thats how strong the story was. Heck, some of the stuff Square does in battles is flat out rediculous! Like Sephiroth's Nova spell. He destroys the friggin sun! But the fights aren't whats important. It's the reason you're fighting.
  • Re:Noir atmosphere (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 29, 2004 @08:24PM (#9014346)
    I guess you never played a Silent Hill game then. Silent Hill absolutely oozes atmosphere.
  • Re:Even better (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dswensen ( 252552 ) * on Thursday April 29, 2004 @08:36PM (#9014427) Homepage
    and I think I heard whispers of a movie of Half-Life...

    Sadly, a Half-Life movie would probably have a much thinner, dumber story than the video game does. And at least one guy outrunning an explosion while yelling "It's gonna blow!"

    I remember the naive days of my youth, when I used to wish they'd make movies out of my favorite video games and comics, instead of wishing they wouldn't.

    Charlie Sheen would make a great Gordon Freeman though.
  • Re:Trolls (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Minna Kirai ( 624281 ) on Friday April 30, 2004 @01:35AM (#9016187)
    Why don't you listen to what I've said in the seminar with USC Cinema-Television and get back to me?

    I gave that an honest try, believe me. Even though it seemed little more than an attempt to suck unspecting web-surfers into 80+ minutes of oral wandering, I listened to most of it. And I think I've gleaned some good pointers on how to withhold information, while claiming to be providing it:

    How to obfuscate the fact you have almost nothing to say:
    1. Don't bother communicating to people who aren't willing to devote at least a solid hour to listening before they know anything else about you.
    2. Don't type anything out. Especially, don't provide a simple 3 paragraphs of text on what you have don't and what you plan next.
    3. Instead, read out the whole thing in a huge single audio file. Do record this into a single 47 megabyte ogg vorbis file.
    4. Do encode the file at more than 75k/s, even though 20k/s is more than enough for speech.
    5. Don't allow any skilled future audio-techs from that cinema school [] to record you. Instead, do it yourself- and remember to blow across the microphone on every other sentence.
    6. Do spend at least 15 minutes to start off detailing the history of every game mod you've played or worked on, before ever mentioning the supposed topic at hand.
    7. Don't even think about posting your script online. Why, then people could read it in only 4-8 minutes, and miss the subtlties measured intonation.
    8. Do post a sign on the frontpage reading "Beware of Leopard".

    I actually have great respect for the people [] who do projects [] along these lines (I admire Powerkill for example)- I simply have no belief that you are actually doing one! You post about DFC in the present tense, which is premature at best. This seems to be an attempt to give your public opinions more credibility, by creating the illusion of some firsthand experience.

    Ideas are a "dime a dozen". Many, many people have had oddball game ideas that'll never come to anything. But much of them have the decency not to pretend do have accomplished something until they actually do . Id software has a philosophy: "When its done"- think about it sometime.

    I've been in the mod-scene too... and I've seen many over-ambitious projects that had such grand ideas that they obviously were never going to get off the ground. DFC ranks up there with the very least plausible of them.

    I'll leave with a few quotes from the audio file, as an aid to anyone else who might read this and wonder what's in the "seminar":

    1. The goth class, maybe I can give them special powers for all the tattoos they get.... mystics and sorcerors are going to use real magic behind the scenes to make things happen. ...

      Lets face it- the consequences to Columbine were not available before Columbine... there were no videogames about it... and I think if people had the opportunity to learn what these kids go through, cuz we're gonna show it, we're gonna show this ...

      The premise in Doom For Columbine is the idea that demons or some evil force are preying on our students in... these demons communicating back and forth on how they're gonna corrupt souls, and that figures a lot into this game

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