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Games Entertainment

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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  • agreed (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Chuck Bucket ( 142633 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:20PM (#9011763) Homepage Journal
    games like Tomb Raider held my attention much longer than some basic arcade style game. In fact, that's what made consoles diff from the arcades back in the day, a multi-level story, not some 2d game that offers no change upon repeated plays.

    super mario? thanks, but our princess is in another castle! ARRRGGG!

  • An observation... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:20PM (#9011771)
    It seems to me that it isn't always necessary for a game to have a well-written story to be enjoyable, but as technology advances, the possibilities for immersion in the world you see on screen increase also.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:22PM (#9011796)

    "Deus Ex" (NOT #2)

    "System Shock 2" (Discovering Dr. Polito still sends shivers)

    any of the "Thief" series.

    "Half Life"

  • by Zorak Man ( 732141 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:23PM (#9011812)
    I think that the story is by far the most important thing in a game. I still go back and play games from '99 and before and enjoy them alot. I play the half-life single player at least once a year. Also I just recently played the first Home-world and it was the story that kept me so rivited to it. So what if the graphics aren't top notch, people are not going to pay 50 dollars for their hard earned cash for nothing more then an interactive tech demo. I also just found Multi User Dungeons online, such as nannymud [nannymud.com], its all text, but the stoies in these gamaes are deeper then morst comercial games right now, and I'm am hooked on those.
  • Re:Context (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Cr3d3nd0 ( 517274 ) <.Credendo. .at. .gmail.com.> on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:25PM (#9011842)
    The real solution to this problem wont be seen until the tools to develop graphical games are as easy to use as the tools for IF (interactive fiction) Many of the stories in IF are recognized as truly intriguing worthwile reads because its possible to create IF with just one person. Once the tools are in place for anyone to make a game creative storytelling will be much simpler.
  • by pegasustonans ( 589396 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:26PM (#9011881)
    Well, it depends on the genre, but Japanese games usually have much more involving stories (in terms of identifiable plot-points & a sense of evolution/progression) than American ones. Then again, one could argue that many such storylines are too linear and don't give the player enough choices. But more and more Japanese games are providing multiple endings & etc... Overall it looks like a good trend for the industry to follow.
  • Metal Gear Solid... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by DiZASTiX ( 461280 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:34PM (#9011997)
    I've said it before and I'll say it again, the story to Metal Gear Solid is amazing. I dont know how they thought it up but it just blows you away. I know I was completley suprised when I finished the game for the first time. I would have to say the best plot/story in a game has to be MGS. The original, for the playstation, didn't have great graphics but who cares, the game was awesome and so wasn't the story. They eventually did a remake on Gamecube and others called Twin Snakes, same game, redone. Better graphics and still a great story. Anways, MGS originally was released 1998 and I havn't seen a game with that good of a story since then.
  • Planescape: Torment (Score:5, Interesting)

    by asdren ( 35537 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:34PM (#9012006)
    I likd Max Payne 2, it was a fun game and I do like the graphic novel approach but the dark noir dialogue is really pretty cheesy. Good thing they don't take themselves too seriously.

    But for an excellent game with a story behind it how about one that begins:

    I remember dying. Not how, when or why, but the cold fact alone: dying. I look around, there are dead bodies lying around. But they certainly don't seem to remember much. Come to think of it, the dead are not suppose to remember dying. Death is the ultimate, finale fate. How come, then, that I breath? How come I feel cold, and afraid, and disoriented? And what comes next? Death is supposed to be the end, no one trains you on "what to do" while you're at it. Maybe I should just lay still, maybe...

    "Come on chief, get up, hurry!" It's an annoying voice, which startles me. More so, the fact that it comes from a floating, whirling skull doesn't help. "What?" and my own voice seems rasp, and strange to me. "What are you waiting for? get UP! we hafta get outta here!" again, the floating skull urges me to do something the dead are not supposed to do.

    I comply, if for nothing else, because it makes as much sense as any other action. The dead, you know, are definitely not supposed to get up. "Boy, they sure tore you up good this time, you look even uglier than before" says the skull. They? this time? Before? Inside of me, ignorance and darkness are no longer fueling fear. There is another sentiment, a not so new one that grows within: rage.

    It is right there, right then, in that dark, foul and creepy place, that I make a decision. I will do another thing that the dead are not supposed to: I will fight to remember my life.
  • The Getaway (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mccalli ( 323026 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:38PM (#9012059) Homepage
    The game that held my attention with a plotline most recently has been The Getaway on the PS2.

    I have two kids and work to contend with, so I rarely get a chance to play games these days. I often ignore story-based games for this reason: no time to finish the story. Zelda: The Wind Waker fell victim to this, Resident Evil, Prince of Persia...lots that are considered to be good by most people's standards (though I had other reasons for dumping Resident Evil too - let me know when they've got a reasonable save system and controls that don't involve walking into every wall, would you?).

    But The Getaway passed the test with flying colours. A good plot, great soundtrack, good graphics and lots of tension. Can't knock it - I thoroughly recommend this game to anyone. Very much looking forward to The Getaway 2 which has been announced.


  • by sammy baby ( 14909 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:43PM (#9012135) Journal
    ...unfortunately, I'm not sure it was all positive. I'm quite certain that one of the hospital scenes in MP2 was the first time I thought to myself, "Enough of the fucking back story already. I want to play!"

    The Max Payne team, and Sam Lake in particular, should be commended for bringing a level of depth to the story that most games in the genre have never even attempted. But there are a lot of people who believe that all that great story came at the price of disrupting the balance between exposition and gameplay. Plus, there are plenty of people who thought that the story just sucked [penny-arcade.com].

    On a side note: anyone else notice the resemblance between Max Payne story author Sam Lake [jivemagazine.com], and Mr. Needs a Maalox himself [rockstargames.com]?
  • Re:Problem (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Grey Ninja ( 739021 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:44PM (#9012146) Homepage Journal
    I disagree. I don't think that a movie watcher can really connect with the character on the screen. When playing a game, it's entirely different, as you assume the role of that character.

    Think of Silent Hill for a good example. The story is subliminal, and very twisted. You really get inside the heads of the main characters, and of course you feel genuine fear at times, as save points are few and far between, and there's a giant piece of unknown territory between you and that save point.

    If you ask me, video games are the perfect means with which to tell a story, as you can draw the player in like no other format. You have the text based "mind reading" ability of a book, but you have the gritty reality of a movie. It's the best of both worlds.

    I want you to do something for me. Go play Eternal Darkness, and then go play Silent Hill 1, 2, or 3.
  • by GotSpider ( 682283 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:46PM (#9012174) Homepage Journal
    Not all of them need awesome storylines to have great playability:

    Zelda: Guy has girl, Guy loses Girl. Guy must find Girl.
    Mario: Guy has girl, Guy loses Girl. Guy must find Girl.
    Gauntlet: Shoot stuff. Shoot stuff. Shoot stuff. Archer needs food. Shoot stuff. Shoot stuff.

    What about games with ridiculous "stories" like:

    Pac-Man: What story is there here? Yellow dot eats little dots, runs away from colored ghosts.
    Asteroid: White triangle shoots at lined objects with a line.

    Not all great games need amazing storylines, although they can certainly help matters (Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Max Payne).
  • Re:Even better (Score:4, Interesting)

    by GMFTatsujin ( 239569 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:51PM (#9012248) Homepage
    Huh. At first glance, the game reminds me of a little-known Activision title called Portal.

    The concept was that you had just arrived on Earth to find everyone had disappeared. A single AI, designed for story-telling, remained online, but its memory had been damaged and it needed prodding to help reconstruct its understanding of events. The memery of the AI was divided into different sections, and by exploring around the sections, you would trigger blocked memories to be revealed.

    There was no shooting, no zapping, no movement, actually. Just hopping from section to section, uncovering clues and having the AI synthesize them into story nuggets. Pretty cool actually. It was like finding an encycleopedia torn to shreds and reconstructing it into a categorical history of the Earth.

    I've often wondered if there were any functional C64 ROMS out there of this game - it was unique, moody, creepy at times, and intellegent.

    "A Mind Forever Voyaging" is another great example of fragmented storytelling -- look for it from Infocom.
  • Re:Even better (Score:2, Interesting)

    by LqqkOut ( 767022 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @04:59PM (#9012348) Journal
    Was I really just visitor #7777777 to the marathon site?! That immediately made me think of FF3 (FFVI Japan) where you'd do massive 7777hp attacks [gamespot.com] when your character was reduced to 7777hp

    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 think that the same things that keep people playing tabletop RPG's are what make good video games as well: immersing storyline with character development along with the flexibility to let the players creatively interact with the environment. Throw in some opportunities for exploration that provide worthwhile bonuses and develop the story, and you've got a solid starting point. I'd say the Final Fantasy series and GTA 3/VC are good examples of "hit games" that fall squarely into that description.

    How does that compare to the Simpsons / TMNT / X-Men / D&D Tower of Doom / Golden Axe games found on classic arcade machines? Amazingly repetitive gaming with uncreative story lines and large fan-bases. What made them so successful?

  • by bonch ( 38532 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @05:20PM (#9012598)
    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.

    It doesn't. You're pre-judging.

    A lot of narration happens as you're playing. It's neat and very noir. Go up to a locked door, and suddenly it narrates, "The door was locked when I tried it." It feels like you're playing a noir flashback.

    At least check it out. I thought it was a neat and different game, and as an aside, the first game I played with actual realistic physics (having just come from Invisible War).
  • Re:Even better (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SamSim ( 630795 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @06:02PM (#9013066) Homepage Journal

    I find there's considerably more depth to the story in Half-Life than most people realise at first. I'm gonna assume all of you have played it and I reveal the following spoilers:

    At the time of the original accident that Gordon Freeman is present for, Black Mesa has had working teleporters for at least a few months and has been able to go to and from Xen for at least a week. They've captured and domesticated a good few indigenous life-forms - witness the Barnacle weapon and the ecosphere set up for some houndeyes in the Opposing Force expansion. Gradually they've captured more and more fauna until they "start getting collected themselves..." They get as far as Nihilanth's lair and manage to retrieve a mysterious orange crystal.

    Yup. The crystal at the start of the game is the same as the three powering the final boss. Look and you will see a hole in the wall where the fourth crystal was stolen from. No wonder there was resonance cascade. The original accident causes a lot of random teleportations to and from Xen and brings over a whole lot of dangerous animals, but it's only about 12 hours of game time after the original experiment that stronger enemies - the green slaves, and the huge alien grunts - begin appearing spontaneously. This isn't accidental: this is enemy action by Nihilanth, who is moving to attack Earth... which is something the Administrator, who observes pretty much the whole course of events, has been expecting, indeed, preparing for. Read Alan Shepherd's diary and you know this was actually expected to happen.

    Realising what has gone wrong the grunts are sent in, find it's too difficult a task to take on, are pulled out and replaced with black ops who attempt to nuke the place as a last resort. Shepherd stops the nuke and between them, he and Gordon Freeman block the alien invasion and kill Nihilanth, thus solving the problem in a different manner from what the G-man expected, but successfully.

    When I figured all this out I was mightily impressed with Valve's storytelling abilities. The inattentive player would have missed a whole lot. I have high hopes for HL2, and I think I heard whispers of a movie of Half-Life...?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 29, 2004 @06:13PM (#9013181)
    True, but when you think about it, the reason why gaming in both cultures are so heavily different is because of the sheer differences. For the sake of simplicity I'm just gonna compare Mangas (Japanese comics) to Comic books (American comics).


    Generally monthly, or longer. Some of these series can last years giving huge opportunities to develop characters and the world. Usually when a manga series ends, the entire 'world' ends, with almost no sequels let alone (alternative worlds/views). The ending (usually) wraps things up nice and neatly with few questions left in the readers' minds (except for the obvious "well what happened after the hero and heroine got married and lived happily ever after?")

    American comic books:

    Lifetime? Endless. Regular issues can be anywhere from weekly to monthly. Most major comic book series either fade away or end in a vague way leaving huge possibilities for sequels or remakes. Modern adaptions of serieses such as Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman are evidence of that. Not to mention the fact that endings are almost never really 'endings'.

  • by TheLoneDanger ( 611268 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @06:37PM (#9013429)
    Now, I'm not saying that there shouldn't be any story in a game, far from it, I like stories in games, but the most memorable story is the one that you create by yourself while playing the game.

    For example, in Deus Ex, which had its own great story, I created my own story by the way I played it. The first time I played through, I would knock out UNATCO agents, until it became more difficult and I started killing them. Then, in France, you actually meet the parents of a UNATCO agent, and the father gives you info you can use against them. If you keep bugging him he says something like: "I've helped you kill my own son, isn't that enough for you?" For the rest of that level I only used tranquilizer darts on the agents. Sometimes, I play through killing everybody, or only harming those who actually attack me.

    This can be applied to other games in other ways, like when you grow attached to characters besides the main ones and use them all the time (RPG, strategy games), and even your style in a fighting game (say if you performed a particularly cool combo in a certain situation, or if you can use moves no one else does effectively). The more actions that a game allows you to use to overcome its obstacles, the more you can tell your own story in the game. Thus while there's a larger more linear story going one, you define your own little story by the way you play. The more (effective) actions you have at your disposal, the more "nuanced" the player-created "story" is.

    Story is great, but great gameplay allows those who don't like the story (because it's bad or just not to their taste) to enjoy themselves anyway. Focussing on gameplay before story will still result in beter sales.
  • Re:Problem (Score:3, Interesting)

    by _|()|\| ( 159991 ) on Thursday April 29, 2004 @09:00PM (#9014615)
    The basic problem is that video games are a poor format for story telling.

    It's a new field with no masters, but I I hope you're wrong. Consider the Kuleshov effect, described in Hamlet on the Holodeck, as follows:

    Lev Kuleshov demonstrated that audiences will take the same footage of an actor's face as signifying appetite, grief, or affection, depending on whether it is juxtaposed with images of a bowl of soup, a dead woman, or a little girl playing with a teddy bear.
    I seem to recall one of the Mapplethorpe photos playing a similar trick with the words "fond" and "fondle." In sufficiently skilled hands, I think this can be a powerful technique to prune the exponential branches a thorougly non-linear story would require.
  • Re:Even better (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Sigma 7 ( 266129 ) on Friday April 30, 2004 @12:17AM (#9015816)
    Realising what has gone wrong the grunts are sent in, find it's too difficult a task to take on, are pulled out and replaced with black ops who attempt to nuke the place as a last resort. Shepherd stops the nuke and between them, he and Gordon Freeman block the alien invasion and kill Nihilanth, thus solving the problem in a different manner from what the G-man expected, but successfully.

    Actually, Shepard was involved in a completely seperate alien invasion - one that Freeman did not know about. Nihilanth and his minions (the Xen Aliens) appeared in Half-Life. Race X (some enemies shown here) start coming in at Opposing Forces - and are slightly different than the Xen counterparts. You even see Xen aliens fighting with Race X in Opposing Forces as well, indcating some form of quarrel between them (either general hatred or desire to control the facility.)

Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed. -- Neil Armstrong