To preface this, this isn't a blog on video game novels. I decided to hijack the topic title to talk about how we tell stories in video games and why we as an industry sort of suck at it. Okay, that might be a bit harsh, but when we have stories in video games a lot of them fail to use the part that makes playing games awesome, the part where it's interactive. There have been games in the past and more recently that have tried to do this, with varying degrees of success, but the vast majority of what we have is mildly interactive at best.
Cutscenes are probably at the end of the spectrum regardless of if they are done in engine or pre-rendered. In many ways it's probably a lot like what it was back in the early days of the film industry where they were putting on a theatre show and then sticking a camera in front of it. You can kind of understand why you would do that and it took a while before they figured out things like multiple camera shots, using the camera to draw attention to different parts of the scene. Cutscenes are a completely passive way of delivering your story, the player sits down and watches what's happening on screen. That's not to say that a cutscene can't be powerful or emotional but it's powerful in the same way that a movie could be powerful.
Metal Gear Solid 4 did do something interesting towards the end of the game that had you hammer the X button occasionally to continue moving through a corridor while getting poached alive. It added just that little bit of agency into what is otherwise a picture in picture cutscene of pretty much every character getting the snot beaten out of them. From a development point of view I get why it's done, they're big flashy and they show off well in a way that people understand. And a couple years ago you could use cutscenes to make your game look about 10 times better than they otherwise could have done and from a psychology point of view helps you associate what you just saw with the in game graphics which often was a flat shaded cuboid.
There are also games that tell their story in game without taking control away from you. Valve do this wonderfully in Half Life 2 and arguably a better example Portal. But I'm going to focus a bit more on Half Life 2 because the story and world in that are slightly more complex and defined. The game is a fan of not taking control away and you always have some level of control over Freeman be it full movement or just looking around. The dialogue all happens around him with characters talking to each other and having full conversations about what they're going to be doing and you as the player can choose to stand there listen to them or look around the lab or where ever you are. There's a lot of that universe that is told purely through the environment. Or which is probably why many games don't do this is be a total jerk and jump up and down on the table knocking over all their probably rather expensive equipment or just walk off mid conversation to just do whatever you're supposed to be doing.
It's awesome because you never take the player out of the game, there isn't always much to do sometimes other than listen but that's the joy of it. You get the ability to do what you want, you get the chance to look around and look at what's happening instead of just taking it in. There are problems like making sure that there are things going on to see if people are talking or the talking giving some respite from some action that happened just recently. It feels better when done right, harder to get right and it probably makes for a worse spectator experience but it means that you never get that disconnect between story and gameplay segments as they bleed together. A story exposition segment can be quickly interrupted and move straight into combat and then move seamlessly back to story.
Another game that has a fantastic story is Mass Effect, I'm going to talk about the second one here and more specifically the dialogue. This is how most of the meat of the story is told to you, a lot of the side lore is told through the codex and that I think is actually fantastic. Tangential information that enriches the world but isn't needed and generally it being text or something not gameplay actually stresses that point about what it is. Anyway back to dialogue menus, it takes control away from your characters actions but you do have some limited control through what you say and also how can do the various paragon and renegade interrupts. The paragon interrupts I feel are generally pretty good and contextual in a way that makes sense, doing it after a moment to comfort a grieving Tali or to butt in on someoneelse'smonologue. The renegade ones on the other hand felt a lot like "why couldn't I just do this through normal gameplay?". Most of them involve shooting people or objects and that's just part of the core of the game mechanics.
There's something to be said about controllers having limitted buttons to actually do things so you couldn't use the dialogue wheel, move, look and shoot all at the same time but the thing is that we as people can do that much multi-tasking or at least think about doing any one of those individual things at any one time.
And on the far end of the other scale you have games that that have their story almost entirely through play, the recently released Journey is a fantastic example of this. Yes it's plot points are somewhat abstract and you couldn't tell every tale you want to tell using it but it's a story that could only ever be told through a video game and that is absolutely fantastic. It does take control away at points but it's a good showing for how storytelling through a game could be done. It takes you through the ups and downs of trying to get to the mountain in the distance from soaring in the sky to being downtrodden and beaten.
We don't see too much of this in games right now because we are a new medium and we're getting used to how we can do things and that's going to take some experimentation. It's arguable how much you can do in this way and it'll be a while before we see this being more prevalent. Something much more grounded in the real world for example probably wouldn't work in this sort of way because it would probably remove that element of grounding that tale would need. The Walking Dead game is a game about people and how they react under extreme circumstances. I can't see a way in how to get from telling the tale the Walking Dead has and making that message all through play.
There are always going to be problems with storytelling in an interactive medium because there is always going to be some portion of your player base that are just going to be total jerks about everything. Oh look there are kids in this town, I wonder what happens when I shoot at them with this massive rail gun? But that's just something that we have to work around. I don't really have any answers as to how we move forward. There are so many different stories that we can tell (apparently there are these things called books that people still write) and each one won't be able to be told in exactly the same way. There's always been a place for all of these different storytelling mechanisms in gaming history, but we need to learn to use interactivity, the part that makes it a game, more and better to tell our stories. When someone is saying this game is so awesome because it's so cinematic, that shouldn't be a plus point because it's kind of missing the point.