Once Upon A Time: Narrative in Video Games

In this GameSpot AU feature we look at narrative development in video games and the growing question among video game developers and gamers: are video games an effective storytelling medium?


When we talk about video games we often talk about the same things: gameplay, length, graphics, difficulty, multiplayer and online capabilities, how well it will sell, and who will buy it. But how often do we talk about the game’s story? How often do we discuss the effectiveness and purpose of its narrative?

In this GameSpot AU feature we look at game narratives, and ask the question: are video games an effective storytelling medium? To find out we talk to game theorists, scriptwriters, and developers from studios including Remedy, Quantic Dream and 2K Games, as well as the leading man of adventure games, Tim Schafer.

How do you tell a good story? If you’re human, it comes naturally. The innate ability to recount our experiences and use imagination to experiment without taking risks is an evolutionary trait that humanity shares across all cultures as a way to educate, entertain, and preserve ourselves for future generations. We tell stories through words, music, art, and dance; we record them on paper, paint them on canvas, and capture them on film. And now, thanks to video games, we can interact with them. When we play a game we are not merely passive observers; we become active participants in the story as it unfolds.

But while there’s no doubt video games tell stories, the nature of their interactivity raises the question of their potential to do this effectively. Comparisons to other storytelling media like film and literature are inevitable but essentially useless--each medium has its own advantage over others, and can do what no other can in accordance with its abilities. But some critics suggest that because games are interactive, their main focus should be gameplay, not story. Others believe that video games can, and do, successfully marry gameplay and story to become an effective storytelling medium. So who is right?

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Thanks to video games we are no longer passive observers in the stories we encounter.

The interactivity hurdle

Earlier this year producer of Square Enix's Star Ocean: The Last Hope Yoshinori Yamagishi told Computer and Video Games Magazine that video games could only advance as a storytelling medium by overcoming the challenges of interactivity.

“It is more of a challenge to produce a game in order to tell a story. In TV, film and theatre, the creator has control over how he gives the story to the viewer--it's easier to control the emotions and feelings expected from the viewer,” Yamagishi told CVG.

“In [a game developer's] case we always have to think about how players might react to each depiction of a character or storyline, and that's the part we can't predict. But if we manage to get over this hurdle, then I regard video games as a greater medium to provide people with deep emotional and exciting experiences.”

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Star Ocean: The Last Hope producer Yoshinori Yamagishi thinks interactivity is standing in the way of video games becoming an effective storytelling medium.

Yamagishi is not alone in his view. Many video game theorists now believe that the interactivity of games stop them from being an effective storytelling medium. Much of the theory surrounding this topic explores how well video games master the relationship between story and the interactive element in games--gameplay. Denis Dutton, professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand and co-founder of the renowned website Arts & Letters Daily, spent some time with Grand Theft Auto and BioShock to get a sense of how stories in games develop and work alongside gameplay.

“There’s a deep division between the concept of a story as it has come down through tradition and the concept of a story as it is in video games,” Dutton said. “Games do not have the story structure we see in Greek plays, Shakespearean tragedies, or even soap operas on afternoon TV. They are, at their very heart, games and not stories.”

According to Dutton, all stories have predetermined outcomes, whether it be Homer’s Odyssey, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four or a joke told over a beer. When it comes to video games, however, the story element is little more than “window dressing”; the narrative is built around the characters and gameplay.

“The interactivity of games is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Of course it is fun to get your hands into a storyline and move it around as you would like. But what would happen if you could enter into your favourite film and do the same? That’s not how traditional narratives work.”

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Dutton believes the story element in video games is little more than "window dressing".

Video games may not work as traditional narratives, but they incorporate all the basic elements of storytelling, including the eternal human interests that are played over and over again in all stories across all media and cultures: love, family life, threats and dangers, exploration and adventure, mortality and death. Like other stories, video game narratives are a powerful expression of the human imagination--witty, entertaining, and complex stories.

“The difference is, of course, that video games combine these traditional elements with interactivity,” Dutton said. “I continue to resist the idea that this can be done easily or effectively. Video games are a new form of make-believe, that’s for certain, but I don’t think I’m ready to call them a new form of storytelling, and beyond that, an effective medium to tell stories. It’s clear to me that Grand Theft Auto and BioShock have more in common with a tea party for teddy bears than they do with the plays of Shakespeare.”

According to Dutton, the only way for video games to overcome the challenges of interactivity and become an effective storytelling medium is to successfully marry both story and gameplay in their development.

“Other storytelling mediums draw us into the inner lives of other people. Video games must learn to do the same. We as players must become completely absorbed in the fate and lives of the fictional characters on screen. It remains to be seen whether game developers can achieve this.”

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For video games to be effective at telling stories they must draw gamers into the inner lives of the characters they play.

The question of whether video games can be an effective storytelling medium has also interested academics, who have been debating the topic for years. Two schools of thought currently exist on the matter: ludology and narratology. The former argues that the focus of video games is, and should be, gameplay; the latter argues that video games can, and should be, a storytelling medium, and should be studied in the same way as other storytelling mediums.

Jesper Juul is a video game researcher at the Singapore-MIT Game Lab in Massachusetts, USA. He has been studying video games for the past 10 years, dedicating a large chunk of his early work to video games and narratives. Although his theories fit into the ludology school of thought, Juul also argues that video games can be both narratives and a set of rules at the same time.

“The game versus story problem really comes down to the obvious: stories don’t let users do things (only interpret) while games let users do things. Stories are fixed, designed experiences; games let players change things,” Juul said.

“I used to think that gameplay was necessarily more important than story, but I have come to accept that some gamers see things differently. When we play games we often switch between seeing the game as a set of rules, like collecting 10 stars to complete the level, and seeing the game as fiction, like recognising that Mario’s girlfriend has been kidnapped.” Click on the Next Page link to see the rest of the feature!

The Donkey Kong example is a case where the rules of a video game cannot be explained by the story. Interestingly, Donkey Kong was one of the first examples of complete narrative in video games, cut scenes and all. The crux of Juul’s argument is that video games are an effective storytelling medium but only in the broadest sense; where it falls apart is the portrayal of human emotions, which Juul believes video games do very poorly.

“Sure, The Sims has characters with emotions, but they are pretty shallow compared to Dostoyevsky,” Juul said. “Complicated emotions and social relations in games often get delegated to cut-scenes, where developers are spared having to implement them in the game rules.”

Like Dutton, Juul believes the power of traditional stories lies in their fixed nature, where things must happen the way they do. This is at obvious odds with the interactive nature of video games.

“What works best in video games are the environmental narratives like in the Grand Theft Auto games. The environment and the radio stations and so on present a depraved and corrupt version of a modern city. This is combined with giving gamers freedom to perform a series of predefined missions at their own pace, which yield a narrative. In this case, gamers still have freedom in between missions.

“There certainly have been many games that tried too hard to tell a good story at the expense of the player; forcing the player to sit through endless cut-scenes and so on. It is easy to point to the failures, but some games are also successful--Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto and BioShock spring to mind.”

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Juul says many games try too hard to tell a good story at the expense of the player; while other games, like Final Fantasy, do this well.

Other theorists have different opinions. Dr Souvik Mukherjee, a game theorist from Nottingham Trent University in England, strongly argues against the positions put forward by both ludologists and narratologists, choosing instead to focus on raising awareness of video games as an important storytelling medium.

“Video games are a new way to tell stories,” Mukherjee said. “Certainly, we don’t see the same Aristotelian plots with the same clear-cut beginning, middle and end, but an increasingly complex use of plot and generic conventions from novels and film.”

But while some games can effectively tell a story, others clearly cannot. Which points to another problem: some types of games simply don’t require an effective, or even a good, story. Should these games be taken into account when discussing the effectiveness of video games as a storytelling medium?

“If you are making a racing game like Need for Speed, or a super-gory shooter like Postal, then the story element won’t be a terribly important factor,” Mukherjee argues. “However, if you consider the Half-Life games, Max Payne, Metal Gear Solid, Fable or Fallout, the story and gameplay go hand in hand. These are the games we should be looking to for examples. I’m sure there are gamers who disagree with this point of view, but that’s the point about texts--they make you think and engage with them at various levels. It all depends on the developers and what they want to achieve.”

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According to Mukherjee, the Half-Life games are a good example of story and gameplay working together effectively.

But developing a video game is no easy feat, and sometimes original intentions and ideas can disappear overnight when budget, time constraints and publisher demands are factored in. Only those who work in the games development industry know just how quickly things can change. Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of English novelist Terry Pratchett, is a video game scriptwriter from London who has had firsthand experience with the demands of the job.

She has been in the industry for 11 years, writing for titles such as Mirror's Edge, Heavenly Sword, Viking: Battle for Asgard and the entire Overlord franchise. While she sees video game scriptwriting as a fairly new discipline compared to other forms of entertainment writing, she believes the industry has a long way to go before developers get the right balance between gameplay and story.

“Video games are the medium with the most untapped potential when it comes to storytelling,” Pratchett said. “But there’s a long way to go. Developing the right synergy between gameplay and narrative takes time to become industry-wide. For every Portal or Psychonauts we have several dozen titles where the narrative has clearly been an afterthought and has no real bearing on the gameplay.

“Gameplay and story can sometimes have quite different goals that can often see them fighting for space. And nine times out of 10, story loses. It’s really about finding the common ground between the two and thinking about story early enough in the development cycle that it can properly fit together with the gameplay. Not just lie on top of it like a kind of narrative custard.”

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Rhianna Pratchett worked as narrative designer and writer on the entire Overlord franchise.

Pratchett believes in the power of a well-told narrative working alongside gameplay, pointing to the fact that story and characters bring context and meaning to the gameplay experience, and can often be powerful motivational factors for players.

“Amazing gameplay can survive s*** storytelling, it’s true, but I believe it’s poorer for it. Great gameplay, infused with a strong narrative and story world, is the ideal.”

But this is easier said than done. Mirror's Edge, last year’s first-person action game from EA DICE, received criticism for its mismatch of gameplay and narrative elements. GameSpot reviewed the game and gave it a score of 7, calling out its “tedious jumping puzzles” and “hazy objectives”. Pratchett says she was brought on to the project quite late, which impacted on the available narrative structure more than the developers imagined.

“I think things will be done differently in the future, put it that way,” Pratchett said. “DICE had problems finding a writer; by the time I got there all the levels had been designed. To be able to make a scene truly interactive (especially one with a first person viewpoint) you really have to design the world to support it. If you don’t then you end up only having linear and often expensive options at your disposal, which don’t always fit with the gameplay. We didn’t get to do as much environmental storytelling as I would have liked.”

Pratchett's experience points to the overall importance of professional story writers in video game development, and their integration within the team of developers.

“When I first started out I used to think that bad game stories or dialogue were the fault of whoever was listed as the writer or story creator. That somehow they didn’t get it. I now know that this is, for the most part, ridiculous. It’s much more likely to be down to the story being a last minute thing, poor integration, or the writer being poorly managed or not having access to the development team. Plus a hundred other reasons that games writers have to tackle on a daily basis. When it comes to writing for games it’s not merely down to how good you are, but how good you’re allowed to be.

“I guess the prominence of some of my games has allowed me to get people discussing games narrative a bit more, and hopefully encouraged developers to think about how to make better use of professional storytellers.”

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Mirror's Edge writer Rhianna Pratchett believes when it comes to writing for games, it’s all about how good you’re allowed to be.

This was certainly the case with Practhett’s work on the Overlord franchise, which began when a fellow writer recommended her to Codemasters. At the time, the publisher and Netherlands-based developer Triumph Studios were looking for a very specific narrative tone, which Practhett managed to provide. Since then she has worked on four Overlord titles, plus the expansion Overlord: Raising Hell.

"Although I wasn’t onsite that much I had a close working relationship with the team, who are a hugely talented bunch," Pratchett said. "Things like MSN, SVN, wikis and ICQ helped immeasurably, and allowed for regular contact and keeping everyone on the same page. I also worked closely with the individual designers to make sure that that every level served both the needs of the moment to moment gameplay and the story. I think they really helped create a greater cohesion between the two elements.

"Writing is rewriting, as the famous phrase goes, and nowhere has that been more the case than in games. It’s a highly iterative process. Smart integration is fundamental, as is giving narrative professionals a little bit of room to play."

If the successful marriage between story and gameplay ultimately lies in the hands of game developers, then what do the developers of story-driven games have to say about the medium and its storytelling capabilities? Do they know whether games will one day stand shoulder-to-shoulder with novels, films and plays? Or will their interactivity restrict them from ever being regarded as an effective storytelling medium? Click on the Next Page link to see the rest of the feature!

In Part One of Once Upon A Time: Narrative in Video Games we looked at video games as an effective storytelling medium as discussed by game theorists, academics and a video game scriptwriter. In Part Two, we speak to the people who set the rules by which we play, and ask them to weigh in on the debate.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said that a story need only have a beginning, middle and an end. If Aristotle is right--and who are we to argue with one of the greatest thinkers of all time--then we should learn to see video games as just another branch of an already diverse storytelling tree. It’s true that games present stories in a different way to what we’re used to, but at their core they are just as effective at telling these stories as any other medium. We already know that some games do not aim for, nor require, a good story to support their gameplay. And as we have already seen, the interactivity of games encourages--rather than inhibits--good storytelling, heralding in the natural evolution into non-traditional forms of narrative.

So what does this medium mean to those who create games? Do developers agree that video games are an effective storytelling medium? Are we now starting to see more games that aim for that perfect balance between gameplay and story?

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If Aristotle is to be believed, a story can be effectively told in any medium, as long as it has a beginning, middle and an end.

What the developers say

Sam Lake is the first to point out that creating a good balance between story and gameplay during the development process is anything but easy. As the lead writer at Remedy Games in Finland, Lake is responsible for the creation of one of video game history’s most memorable characters. Max Payne (the character) was a hit with gamers for his quirky metaphorical reflections on life and his somewhat gritty social interactions. Max Payne (the video game) doesn't follow a traditional linear narrative structure, beginning in the middle and using flashbacks and dialogue to reveal past events. The game’s film noir style mixed with its unique way of graphic novel cut scenes earned it stellar critic reviews and helped it win a coveted BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television) award for best PC game of 2001.

Lake, who studied both literature and screenwriting at university, has worked on all of Remedy’s titles, including Death Rally, Max Payne, Max Payne 2 and the upcoming Alan Wake. He says that creating a game with good story and good gameplay is extremely hard for a developer to do.

“You need to develop the two hand in hand,” Lake said. “You need to understand both, and you need to have lots of patience and be willing to put a lot of time and effort into making sure that both work individually and together. Very often, one or the other leads, and in concentrating on only one, you limit the other and end up in a situation where you need to make compromises. It’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible. I feel that it’s a goal worth striving for.”

Lake’s favourite part about his job is simply the act of being able to tell a story: from the original vision to the minute details like the individual lines of dialogue or the names and slogans on posters found in-game.

“In Max Payne and even more so in Alan Wake, the story, the character, the setting and the style of the story have all been part of the design process from the beginning. They are story-driven experiences. With both games I very much enjoyed borrowing classic and familiar elements from popular culture, things used in other mediums, bringing them to a game and using them in a new way in that context, creating a new, unique mix out of those elements."

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Creating Max Payne was a story-driven experience from the beginning of the development process, borrowing elements from classical and popular culture.

“Every game is a combination of different elements," Lake continues. "Whatever works for that particular game, whatever makes it entertaining, engaging and interesting, is okay. Very few people care about how you do it, as long as they enjoy the end result.”

Jack Scalici, director of production at 2K, doesn’t agree with Lake. He believes there’s nothing simpler than making a game with perfect balance between story and gameplay. Scalici served as a writer on 2K’s upcoming title Mafia II, which is being marketed as a heavily story-driven game.

“When we looked at what made the first Mafia game so special, we all agreed that it was the epic story and the atmosphere,” Scalici said. “Unfortunately, the storytelling in many games will often take a backseat to gameplay. Storytelling costs money, and many developers will decide that it’s just not worth it, or that what they have is good enough. Publishers and developers can get away with this if the gameplay is great; gamers will often forgive poor storytelling, as will many reviewers.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s very hard to create a good balance between story and gameplay. I can think of many games that have gotten it right. It’s all about the game the developer chooses to make, and their aptitude. I think the problem exists because historically, the story of a game has usually been an afterthought. I would love to see this change.”

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Balancing the story and gameplay in Mafia II was an easy task according to 2K’s Jack Scalici--it’s all about making the right development choices.

Scalici says that while some of his favourite stories have come from video games, he still believes gameplay is king.

“No matter how good the story is, if you don’t put effort into your gameplay, your game will fail. Gameplay, compared to story, is not as easy to get right. You need to start building the game and experience it before you can decide if it works or not, and getting that first playable demo done often takes a lot of people, time and money. This is one of the main reasons that development has historically started on games well before the story is close to final, and it can easily lead to an imbalance of the two.”

But once the gameplay is sorted, how many developers actually pay proper attention to getting the story right? One of the biggest reasons why so many games fail in the story department is that the developer has not invested time and resources into finding the right person to actually write a good story (i.e., not the work experience kid). Scalici agrees. He says the best-written games usually have one or more people who do nothing but work on the story element. Click on the Next Page link to see the rest of the feature!

“A writer understands story structure and character development,” Scalici said. “They know how to exploit the strengths of the medium while keeping the scope of the game within the limitations of the current technology. Developers are famous for having an inexperienced employee, who usually pulls double duty as the junior production assistant or the IT guy, create or supervise the game’s story; this is a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, hiring someone who knows nothing about game design will lead to a story that feels tacked onto the gameplay.”

So while no one is prepared to disagree with the idea that storytelling is an important aspect of game development, just how many developers are actually devoting a good amount of time and resources refining the story element in their games alongside gameplay?

One developer who is doing just that is 38 Studios, based in Massachusetts, US. The studio was founded by Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling in 2006, and is currently in the process of making its first game--an MMORPG codenamed Copernicus, which is scheduled for release in 2011. Knowing the importance of story, especially in an MMORPG, the studio brought on-board New York Times best-selling fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, who is now the lead writer and ‘world-builder’ on Copernicus. Salvatore is a gamer himself and no stranger to writing for the medium: one of his first projects was working on Atari’s Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone; he also served as editor on the EverQuest book line. It was that particular story that led Salvatore to realise to the storytelling potential of video games.

“From the moment I walked onto the world of Norrath, I knew I could write a thousand books set there--it was that alive and real to me,” Salvatore said. “What I came away with most is the nagging question of what the author’s role might be in a video game world.

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The thriving world of EverQuest helped bestselling author R.A. Salvatore to discover the storytelling potential of video games.

“I like to make things fit together, logically and reasonably," Salvatore said. "I want a consistent world, with economics and politics that make sense, and magic that makes everything else fit its own reality. I don’t think we’ve tapped the full potential of video games just yet; we’re still working our way through the infancy stage of the medium.”

Salvatore returns to the idea that ‘traditional’ forms of narrative do not work in video games; no one wants to read three pages of text in-between levels or follow a story in exact chronological order. In this case, the interactivity of games is a redeeming factor.

“When you read one of my books, I’m in almost complete control. I create the heroes and invite you to live vicariously through their adventures. But video games take this to an entirely new level. In a massive multiplayer online role-playing game, the characters I and my team create, no matter how wonderful we might think them, are, by definition, secondary players. The most important character in a MMORPG is the one the player creates.

“But this doesn’t mean that there can’t be storytelling. What it means is that it’s up to us, the world-builders; to create a consistent, believable, beautiful and magical environment for the player, give him or her tools to write his or her own heroic adventure. If we can bring it to that point, well, that’s storytelling.”

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Salvatore believes traditional forms of narrative--like text--do not work in video games. You shouldn't have to read pages and pages of text to be able to keep up with the story.

Admittedly, it’s not always easy--or cheap--to take these kinds of chances when you’re a developer, especially when so much of the development process is trial and error. But Salvatore thinks it’s always worth trying for the sake of progress and pushing the medium forward.

“It’s kind of frightening when you look at the money involved in taking these chances, but it’s also exciting to be on the front end of it all. We’re going to try many different techniques to get our story across and make it important to the players without interrupting their gameplay. We’re going to watch and see what works and what doesn’t and constantly refine our delivery. And no one said it was going to be easy.”

Someone who has succeeded for years to create captivating, exciting and immersive video game stories and characters is founder of Double Fine Productions, Tim Schafer (recognised by many as the king of adventure games). Schafer is best known in the game industry for two things: making games that are funny and making games that tell a good yarn.

“I think people often see examples of story done poorly in games, and based on that they assume that story doesn’t work in games,” Schafer said. “Gameplay, story, art, and music--all of these are just tools to me, and they all serve the same purpose: to entertain the player and transport him or her into another world, and another state of consciousness.”

According to Schafer, good storytelling in games is all about empathising and relating to the on-screen characters, something that he believes games do very well.

“When it’s done right, you take on the plight of the protagonist as your own. You feel what they feel, and you are rooting for them because their success is your success. That’s even truer for games because their success is literally your success. That feeling of exploration and projection into a different world--no other medium can do that as well as games.

“I love it when fans write letters saying they had a really personal connection to a character. We got a lot of fan mail about Glottis [from Grim Fandango], for example. People really seemed to empathise with him, and share his emotional ups and downs. That’s so rewarding because it means that the character really came to life for someone.”

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According to legendary games designer Tim Schafer, storytelling is all about empathising with the on-screen characters, like the affable Glottis from Grim Fandango.

Like Lake, Schafer believes getting the balance between story and gameplay is a difficult thing for developers to do, and something that should be more widely celebrated when it is achieved.

“Games are full of trade-offs. There will come a point while making a game where you will have to sacrifice, for example, visual quality for a more dynamic environment or story for the sake of gameplay. You try to have everything, of course, but at some point you need to make choices and then you really need to know what your priorities are. I try to explore areas in games that I think haven’t been explored yet. Kind of like the Starship Enterprise. When any developer does that, it’s a healthy thing for the industry.”

So does that mean that video games will one day have the same reach as more traditional forms of narrative, like books and film?

“Yes, definitely. As soon as everybody over the age of 40 dies. Hey, wait. That’s me!” Click on the Next Page link to see the rest of the feature!

Reaching this goal could happen sooner rather than later, if some of the soon-to-be-released games--and the technology behind them--are anything to go by. One of the highlights of this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles was the upcoming Sony-exclusive title Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer from French developer Quantic Dream. Quantic Dream’s founder David Cage says the studio has invested in proprietary technologies for many years, including a PlayStation 3 3D engine, to create what he calls "real-time emotion" within games.

“Creating emotions through interactivity is what motivates me,” Cage said. “When you look at a painting or watch a movie, the pleasure of the action does not come from standing in a museum or sitting in a cinema, it comes from the emotions triggered within you. In other arts and entertainment forms, these emotions are very diverse and intense. Reading a novel, you can smile, cry, be upset, feel empathy, etc. When you play a video game, all you can feel is anger, excitement, frustration, and competition--very primal emotions usually related to adolescence. All the more complex and deeper emotions found in life and other art forms are almost not present at all.”

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Quantic Dream’s David Cage believes Heavy Rain deals with many more complex and deeper emotions than most current video games care to attempt.

Cage says that although these emotions are satisfying for younger audiences, they are not appropriate for an older audience. He believes adults want a more engrossing experience with more varied, intense and complex emotions. Most of all, they want an experience with more depth and meaning than what he believes most games currently have to offer.

“Like with the best movies they have seen or the best books they have read, they want the experience to bring them something; not only entertain them but change the way they see things. This is the challenge of our industry--choosing between being a toy for kids and becoming an art form for a wider audience.”

But there are many who would disagree with Cage. Surely we have seen more than enough examples of games with complex emotions--it’s hard to believe that all you’re ever going to feel while playing games like Shadow of the Colossus, Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy is anger, excitement, frustration, and competition. But Cage wants more--he believes the video game development industry needs to move into a new territory.

“All games look the same because we have exploited to the bone the potential of our current game paradigms. How many different games can you make where you shoot enemies in first person? You can make them look better, improve AI, graphics, physics, and so on, but fundamentally, the experience is still exactly the same. If we don’t invent new paradigms, if we cannot address the evolution of the market demographics and offer new kinds of experiences for an older audience, we will become no more than toys.”

Cage believes storytelling is one possible answer. However, this is not without its problems, namely publisher demands and a different set of development skills.

“Producing and selling games to a mature audience is a different job that requires a different strategy. I am sure that the market itself will help them [publishers] to understand the need for change. They [publishers] did not have a clue about emotion five years ago; today you cannot find a publisher who is not telling you that his product is emotionally involving.

“The second issue is that there is no grammar for interactive storytelling at the moment and very few people in the world working on this. I think Heavy Rain is the only AAA title based on interactive storytelling in development at the moment. Working on this new generation of experiences requires a very different type of skills.”

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Indigo Prophecy, a previous Quantic Dream title, tried its hand at interactive storytelling with deep, textured characters and cinematic gameplay.

For example, instead of having levels designers define where enemies and ammo should be placed on the map, Cage would like to see writers creating appealing stories and characters. With this new format, he hopes games will one day be created by authors.

“I don’t believe that games should be ‘fun’; I prefer to say that like any other form of entertainment, they should be engrossing and make you feel different things. I hope that Heavy Rain will demonstrate that in a way that will inspire other people to try this new direction. This is maybe the biggest step the industry has to make.”

Cage was inspired to create Heavy Rain after the agonising experience of temporarily losing his six-year-old son while shopping with his wife. The panic, despair and guilt suffered during that brief period led Cage to try a different approach in his work: writing something more personal, more related to him as a human being, as opposed to “heroes saving the world”.

“Writing about something that happened to you is a very different approach. Few games have done that before I think, because most games are about ‘out-of-this-world’ stories. I have never been a soldier during World War II, and I don’t know what it feels like to save the planet or to be confronted to hordes of zombies, so it is difficult for me to write about that. Talking about my son and what I felt during these 10 minutes is definitely something I found more interesting and more challenging. Our medium is now mature enough to tell stories about real people in real life. I don’t think we need aliens and monsters anymore.”

And that aspect of Heavy Rain is certainly evident to anyone who has seen it. The game tells its story through gameplay consisting of quick time events and a completely contextual interface, by which the characters have access to a large number of actions as required by the situation they find themselves in. In addition, playable characters can also die--when this happens gamers take control of a different character and the story continues along a different path, with certain consequences. If all playable characters die, the game ends with a proper conclusion. Cage’s goal in doing this was to leave an imprint in the mind of the player.

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Heavy Rain’s contextual interface gives gamers access to the mind of their on-screen characters, mimicking real life situations as closely as possible.

“We dared to break with the traditional game paradigms because we believe they are irrelevant for the experience we want to create. Ideas like game over, ramping, mechanics and so forth are of no use in this new format. We replace them by emotional involvement, decision making, and contextual actions.

“I think it is possible to create interactive experiences that will be a part of people’s culture, will contribute to make them who they are, will maybe even change them or make them think differently. We are just at the beginning of this.”

But while some developers already recognise the potential of video games as an effective storytelling medium, it may still be some time before the rest catch up. The ability to create fantastic, moving experiences in video games is already there--if this small group of developers can continue to invest in this vision, and the player base can continue to support them, then the medium can only grow stronger. What are your thoughts on video games as a storytelling medium? Can games tell stories effectively? Tell us your comments below!

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Hey Laura! How are you? My name is Maria and I find your article really interesting! Honestly I like both video games and book stories, but lately I have found that video games storytelling is becoming more interesting because is adding the player in to this fantastic world. The contrary of a book, the reader is just an spectator.

Right now I am working on my thesis, that it is related to video game narrative. I was just wondering if you still had the information that you quote for your article. I had found articles from Jesper Juul, but, your quotes on Dutton got me curious and I would love to read the full research. You think you could share this information?

Thanks in advance!

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Although the major focus of game makers is on graphics and user interface, but narrative development is also very important. This requires well-polished script and great skills as you are one of the best essay writers in the field you belong to. So in order to become a successful and self-sufficient game developer, you must also improve your literal abilities.

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For me it's probably the most interesting article I've read on Gamespot.. Probably because I always look for a game that tells a good story and has entertaining gameplay. Thank you.

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I'm currently writing a story about a character and while the player decides how the story unfolds by controlling her, this job becomes exponentially harder when you're dealing with a tabula rasa type of character (that is, a blank slate) that the player creates from his/her experience of playing the game. Thanks to technology, we are slowly catching up the level of dynamism of tabletop games. That is, the reactivity of the world in response to player character's actions and relationships with NPCs. In video games, you create a world but you set up all kinds of restrictions on that world, you limit the PC to a set of allowed behavior because there are only so many responses you could program to each element in that set. Whereas with something like Dungeons and Dragons, the computational and creative power of the GM's mind (with help from the rulebook) opens up an infinite amount of choice to the players at the table. Therefore as we progress in our technology: game engines, disk capacity, etc. nonlinear narrative in games will reach greater heights. When you have a finite (and at this time a rather tiny) set of allowed actions, the designers are pretty limited when it comes to writing the consequences to all the different permutations of those actions. Also, my response to David Cage's remarks in this feature: "i think quantic dream's david cage needs to stfu" http://blog.bearloga.net/post/198120668/david-cage-please-stfu

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I think a distinction needs to be made between games which aim for an aesthetic experience and those that don't. There's one for literature (high lit / pop lit) to indicate the books that should be read by those looking for artistic oomph and those for shallow entertainement. High games can be your max paynes, beyond good and evils, ico etc., pop games can be your madden, need for speed etc. I recently played through psychonauts and the way the interactive environment represents the psychology of the character made for an extremely aesthetic experience.

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Thanks for a wonderfully refreshing article. It's nice to stop between reviews now and then, and think what makes videogames all they are, why do we like them, how we can improve them, or even if we should. Nice selection of contributors, also!

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MGS4 is all i can say

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3)The industry is slowly picking up that it's audience is maturing, but it seems the case of too little too late. Now instead of the most fin plots i.e. Mario's girlfriend is kidnapped (sex and death once again) we now get retitled Tolkien, Lucas, Spielberg and Philip k Dick. This is because they are going to sell (hell i enjoyed uncharted despite being such an obvious indie clone) unlike the visual arts, literature, theatre, dance and film, video games have never had their own creative movements, with maybe the exception of the rise and fall of the point and click as well as the advent of the FPS. Without a cohesion of minds it's hard for any medium to grow creatively. It's a big topic and I really can't condense the entire concept to fit this post, but as it stands society has to change before the industry will and intern the quality of the stories that are produced. Also putting sex scenes in video games (looking at you mass effect) does not make them mature unless they have some context other than pleasing the male fanbase in fact it does quite the opposite and certainly doesn't improve the percetion of video games in the public forum... sorry just a pet hate

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2) Sex and death despite being so crucial to the human condition are some of the most taboo subjects in a society so rooted in Christian dogma (once again speaking largely of the western world, also I'd like add that I am Christian myself so don't accuse me of anti Christian bias or something silly like that). This coupled with the broader perception that games are solely ''play'' so from a public perception a game that depicts the human and mortal side of say a heroine junkie is completely outrageous, and from an industry standpoint a subject matter that would surpass the intellect of its audience. It is sad what misconceptions can produce.

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I think a part of the problem and one that is often overlooked, is that to for a medium of story telling to ever move forward it needs to be pushed my both the the creators and consumers. This has been an incredible stalling point in the development of in game narrative. 1) The first being that the two most prominent and important themes within western art (this also applies to other cultures, but art theory generally subscribes to a western paradigm mostly that which comes out of Europe) and there by inclusive of story telling, are sex and death. Now when you simplify it is evident that stories as derivative as Duke Nukem contain both of these themes. So it's clear that games can tackle big issues, but for the most part their execution has been exactly that, derivative.

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though that comment about not needing zombies anymore was dumb. while videogames CAN tell complex and moving storys, who says they HAVE to? why cant some games be deep and others just be plain fun man?

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i think a video game CAN be a great medium for storytelling (not that it always is), but like both books and movies it has its + and -. ill list a plus and minus for each: videogames:+you play as the hero and can to at least to some degree "live" the story. the - is really a double edged sword, it takes game play. which is fun but often puts the story in the background film:+ you see the action and get a story that you can either sit back and enjoy or get wrapped up in. - all you do with a film is watch, for example you cant really get in the characters heads and understand them as with vg and books which is partly do to with the alotted time (i know thats two - but who cares) books:+ books can be as looooooong as they like and gives by far the best UNDERSTANDING of the story characters and action - is that its hard to convey action sequences like would you rather read watch or play out a fight scene. so in my opinion its really a matter of the storytellers choice as to which medium they choose, any one of these can be made to work. (P.S. i know that there are waaaay more +s and -s to each choice but i just didnt feel like writing an essay(sue me))

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Part 3: But back to storylines. If you add a little action to a really amazing drama like the kind I described...then perhaps you can make a SUPERB video game. Because the story is still there, you're emotionally involved in the story, but yet there's action so there's a reason to hit buttons, and that action are also a part of the storyline, helping to move the story along. Sure, alot of those would have to be FPS. But, there's nothing saying you couldn't do something other than a FPS. For example, imagine a boxing game kinda like 'Raging Bull'...the story of a man on a path of self-destruction, or 'Hoosiers' the total underdog story...if you could tie the emotions of either storyline into a sports game, it would be way better than today's sports games where you fight/play a match, earn money, buy outfits, move up in the ranks, complete your season, etc, but no story.

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Part 2: I don't play video game to get a "more real" sense of reality...what I mean by that is a story or reality you know exists in real life but that you just haven't personally been affected by...the reality of well-developed real-life human characters reacting with other well-developed real-life human characters and the human drama that unfolds...the kind of reality you get with some of the great movie dramas and great books. But those wouldn't make good video games because although you appreciate a great drama for the emotions you feel as a result, you still are observing the events unfold. It would ruin the story if you're supposed to pause and then choose between hitting X for cry, Y for laugh, and triangle for 'Play it again, Sam'.

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Part 1: When it comes to video game stories, I thnk you're pretty limited to a story that could be portrayed in a great action movie. It can still have alot of drama and emotion - like 'The Godfather' movie, 'Chinatown' or 'The Manchurian Candidate.' But it's not like they're going to turn 'Citizen Cane', 'Dr Zhivago' or 'Gone with the Wind' into video games any time soon. And hopefully they don't try to with Heavy Rain (I mean, what ARE those commands in that picture? withdrawal, cold, sh?) Looks boring if they're trying to make the experience somehow "more real." Personally, I play video games for the unreal moments...I play war games vs participating in a real life war...or driving an expensive race car and drifting through corners...or horror/alien game vs, um, dying horribly in very abnormal circumstances.

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One of the best stories I ever saw in video games has to be God of War.

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[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

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very very very good graphics and features in this game looking cool,nice,mind blowing game ever lol of to this game :lol:

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There are exceptions to just about every rule, but I find the story to be a very important element. It is often the driving force that makes me obsessively play until I complete the game. I call shenanigans on the guy who said that it's easy to balance story and gameplay; if it was easy, you'd see a lot better stories in games than you do now. It takes quality designers and also a commitment by the team as a whole to the story-telling aspect, as opposed to cutting the story all over the place. I almost wish that gaming wasn't growing as much as it is; games cater to the masses who aren't quite as "into" their games as those of us who could be considered more "hardcore". It's a smart business move to make flashy first person shooters, but it takes time/money/talent to focus on the story, and as a business often times it's just not a smart move for the company that's making the game.

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I think Valve has done the most to advance storytelling in video games with their facial animation technology and the way the entire story is played out from the player's perspective, never once taking the player out of the game but allowing him to simply experience the story as it unfolds before his eyes. There is more that can be and needs to be done so that gaming can find its unique storytelling voice, but Valve is definitely on the right track.

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I have a friend who is all about the graphics of V.G.'s. He could care less if the story was good or not, I on the other hand have to have a great story line for the game to even become apart of my V.G. library! Graphics are important, but a great story line with characters you can fall in love with is WAY more impotant to me!!

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Story is important to me. I love having a game with an excellent story. But story with no gameplay makes it more of a visual novel than a game. Likewise, if the gameplay is engaging enough, the story might become secondary. Perimeter, for example. I found the gameplay to be fun and intersting, but its story was so convulted I just skipped it all. I think its best for good games to strike a balance between the two. Games like that are far and few between, but when they do appear, they are to be remembered.

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Storytelling to me is the most important factor when I pick a game. I love GOOD gameplay, but if there is no story, I find gameplay alone gets repetitive. I dunno if this is because I have been gaming sence the mid 80's? Maybe it's because I have seen everything redone 50 billion times? Could just be that, I'm getting older and prefere games that tug with my emotions as much as my reflexes. Either way, nothing beats a game that takes ya for a ride.

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They use the VG as a story medium because it always sells especially by amateur developers. I think they only started doing it because only at this time now that graphics has improved. Think back in those retro days when story isn't taken into account (i.e Donkey Kong, Mario, Street Fighter and the ever so addictive Tetris). Like Ratatoskr321 said developers these days now has to fit in with the people's taste that is why they make VGs as a story medium because people now like stories more than enjoyment. Also, I'd rather spend more money on VGs than watch movies these days because stories in VGs are far more interesting.

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Natal would make an amazing storytelling tool with the Milo demo...we could have complex characters that we want and we could interact with them. Say instead we take on the role of a certain man or woman; we'd be addressed as that character and should be given a list of words that that character would say and the NPC would be able to get an understanding of what you're saying. (not everyone can be Milo at first, too expensive). One of my favorite story moments is from my video game Kigndom Hearts II where Sora is leaving the town his nobody (half of him), Roxas had spent and was leaving Roxas' friends. So Sora finds himself shedding a tear and says to his companions seriously, "Guys...I'm sad." He confused as Sora, but sad as Roxas a complex character(s) right there on screen. Also throughout the game Sora's personality shines through into humor, smiling moments, and respect. Aw man, now that I have three paragraphs my comments probably gonna be skipped over lol, oh well. Wonderful article, its gotten me thinking. Thank, you.

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Most games' stories are constructed of a series of archetypical characters and predictable plotlines. I think the main problem is that, depending on which characters and plots are used, these derivative stories are often praised as the best the medium has to offer. *COUGH HALO, COUGH FINAL FANTASY.* Tales of the Abyss is a great example of a game shunned for ridiculous reasons. The main characters had genuine, HUMAN flaws, which sprung about because of believable, HUMAN events, rather than a flaw created merely to make them amiable, or no flaw at all. All characters, regardless of 'faction', had real motivations, and real reasoning. But, because the base plot concept was similar to another much more popular (and much inferior) game, it was shunned. Humanity in characters, and unpredictability in plots, are the two main things that games (and movies, and books) need to pull them out of the storytelling hell they're in. But more important than that are that people need to stop clinging to the already established conventions - the black-guy-who's-gunna-die who's been in horror movies for 50 odd years, the wants-to-purify-the-world arch villain, etc - long enough to appreciate it if and when these titles actually come along. Instead of letting another Shadow Hearts: Covenant pass by without the recognition it deserves.

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I find that not only is it possible games to be an effective storytelling medium, but that it's becoming the standard rule to have an involving story rather than the exception, like it used to be in the earlier days of gaming. Case in point: The last two Persona games work so well beacause they tell a deep involving story and the great gameplay, in my opinion, felt like it's main role was to allow the players better experience it. Heck, both P3 and P4 managed to make me cry, more than once, during the main quest and even during a social-link or two, and that's something that movies and books haven't done to me in a long time. Speaking of movies, The Force Unleashed had better storytelling, whether through character development, actual plot, or heck, even ACTING, as far as I'm concerned, than the entire prequel trilogy itself. Was it a GOOD game? No. Was the story epic? Yes. Take that, those who say games can never be considered a good storytelling medium since they're not litterature, movies or plays!

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I like where they're going with Heavy Rain but David Cage makes it sound like he thinks every dev should go in the same direction and no game should have a focus on fun, which is just stupid.

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Anyone who says that video games are not proper narratives because they do not match with the typical ideas of narratives are completely showing their own inability to adapt to a shifting world. They say, with no subtlety at all, that narratives are solely locked in the realm of literature, film and plays and nothing can ever change that. Just look at Role-Playing Games. I sincerely doubt people play games like Final Fantasy or KOTOR entirely for the gameplay. Without the stories, those games are nothing. I, personally, find the most enjoyment from the stories in games. I often feel what my characters are feeling. An example of this is when I played Infinite Undiscovery, there comes a point where you must rush to a town to help the people there. There's no set time limit in the game yet I felt compelled to drop everything I was doing and run to the town. Stories are the future of gaming and developers need to see this. I am sick of playing games that tack on worthless storylines to give mild context to why I'm shooting up a city. I want to feel tied to my main character. I want his/her success to be my success not only because I won a level but because I helped save that city or disarmed that bomb.

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I think that Salvatore has the correct idea, that in effect, the major responsibility of the writer has to be the enviroment of the character, and making it a fully realized world, especially in situations where the character has been "created" by the player. If one is creating an open world game, where the characters roam almost endlessy without a sense of a linear story, the world has to seem as if its operating as you are, in a sense, randomly.

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it's a mix... stories are important, but not always. When the story is important for the experience, make it interesting. But some games are all about the fun. In those cases, drop the story and don't worry about it, like Left 4 Dead. Everybody is a zombie. It's a virus, 4 guys survived. Period. Why would you care about some conspiracy or evil corporation? Kill zombies and have a good time. I also liked Bioshock, which in fact had a good story hat complemented the game. Great. But video games are versatile and it's a combo. Mix the elements you think necessary and do it. But if you're gonna rely on the story, make it a good one.

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I was someone who always thought that games should always have great stories, and that we don't have to compare them to anything then to other games. I agree with Lake and Schafer that combining Story and GamePlay is a hard thing but it's possible. Schafer is a legend and he knows what he is doing. Lake did an excellnt job with Max Payne. David Cage should better not dissapoint us, but I think that's impossible. Heavy Rain looks great, feels great, plays great, etc. I never was a fan of shooting as much as possible, I rather stay at one point and looks at the scenery and thing what everything happend in the story till now and that the stroy takes me to the next goal. Heavy Rain, you have to do something big and you better succed at that :)

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Dear David Cage: I am very excited about Heavy Rain. Now, please shut up about how amazing and brilliant you are and FINISH YOUR GAME.

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I think one of the problems that we are facing in story-driven games is that the demand and appreciation isn't quite as good as those that are more gameplay-driven. It seems that the population of gamers who expect well-conceived story-gameplay integration are in the minority. Most gamers are just looking for games that offer a simple yet enjoyable experience. This is why two of the most anticipated titles this year are first-person shooters. However, I do think that over the next five years or so we'll be seeing a much higher demand on balanced story-gameplay experiences.

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I don't fully agree with any of these guys, even though they all have very good points. The balance is difficult, or we would see more games that actually had interactive stories. And based on what I've seen of Heavy Rain and on Indigo Prophesy, I doubt I would really like Heavy Rain as a game, but we definitely need that kind of development incorporated into other games to bring out more emotion.

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I'm surprised BioWare wasn't mentioned. They seem to be the best, or at least one of the best, at creating engrossing, personal stories. I mean, there's Neverwinter Nights, a story based entirely on your personal choices, and Mass Effect, which at it's heart acted as a deep character story. And who here can honestly say that the plot twist in KotOR wasn't one of the greatest twists in storytelling history? It's made more so by the fact that it directly involves your character, whom you create and assume the role of. Darth Vader being Luke's father was a powerful and completely unexpected twist, but imagine if Darth Vader was YOUR father. Think about it.

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"Publishers and developers can get away with this if the gameplay is great; gamers will often forgive poor storytelling, as will many reviewers." I disagree; it isn't what I see here at GS for example; when a game has a very poor story, it loses it replay value, it becomes only one more game at the shelves. It's more like a drug effect, it lasts only a little, and leaves nothing but a poor memory. I think in the other way around, i.e., a game poor in gameplay and graphic design, with a very good story, is forgivable; look at the LoK: Defiance reviews, it has nothing that another game like Devil May Cry hasn't presented related to gameplay and graphics, apart from it's absolutely intriguing story. Every time I go in a forum from this game, it's always the same subject: the story, and not "how the hell you can mod the game to make the main character inflict more damage with his sword". That works to LoK Series, GTA series, Tomb Raider series, Resident Evil series, Vampire Redemption and Bloodlines, Fallout series, Star Wars - The Force Unleashed, and so on, and these titles claim the credits to themselves.

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I dont like this Cage guy...... who the hell disses first person shooters, especially when its about storytelling in videogames. FIRST PERSON is the most direct and personal way to experience story. THE TWO BEST GAMES OF ALL TIME ARE FIRST PERSON(half life1/2, bioshock) . ALSO the thing both games do similar is they give you a story and only give you a bit of the story and tell you it from the perspective of one person, so you have to play the game many times to fully understand and it lets you interpret things a lot, which helps to make the story PERSONAL. Is it fair to say that the people making Heavy Rain are stupid or just full of themselves?

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@paullam15 "Gameplay first and story second"(c) You think it's a bad thing? Not everyone would prefer a game with a crappy story and good gameplay to an opposite one

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mgs all the way best story

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TWEWY did wonderful when it came to stroy telling, but movies usually have better stories

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One of the problems I feel that wasn't addressed in this feature is how a majority gamers just don't care or expect a good story and in my view if gamers don't care neither will developers. If we gamers don't demand better storytelling in our games I feel we won't progress any further then where we are now. If gamers, reviewers knocked games for poor storytelling publishers would be more keen on giving developers more time and resources to devote to the story from the very beginning of development, but unfortunately this isn't the case. A gamers mentality and expectations is gameplay first and story second and for storytelling in video games to move forward will either be by the demands of gamers for better storytelling or developers realizing how important storytelling can be to their games to really work on it. I really enjoyed reading this feature as it has been a topic I have been thinking about for quite some time.

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I think that The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess did get the storytelling element right

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heavy rain= movie that you are the star i don't know what you guys think but in my opinion, heavy rain impressed me with its "unique" gameplay. it's like watching a movie, reading a book and it isn't dull.

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Heavy Rain is going to be good! :D

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Great feature, but I think games are just getting the "balance" right. When I cared what happened to Snake at the end of MGS4, I knew after all of these years of gaming that there had been a change. And I'm sure there are other games that have stories and or characters just as meaningful to others.

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balance is crucial

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Scalici is so wrong. Making a game with satisfying gameplay and an interesting plot is difficult (lots of other game developers already confessed to that). Now I understand why Mafia was so boring. Lots of story, but repeatetive and tedious gameplay (especially the driving parts) - another wrong path to follow. Learn from Illusion's mistakes, developers Would be nice to see what David Cage means with his "special emotional approach", Heavy Rain is gonna be smth special ;)

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Games can be as good a story-telling device as any. Some of the most memorable stories I can think of originate from games. I do believe that the best games are those that combine good gameplay with good stories. Having said that, I don't like it when game developers just put in a bad story as an afterthought; I'd rather there be a good story or none at all. I don't mind there not being a story if the gameplay makes up for it.

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anyone interested in heavy rain should play indigo prophecy...which happened to be also developed by Quantum Dreams and is VERY story-heavy but the gameplay itself is also very fun as every action you make directly affects how the story goes...meaning there are a lot of possibilities of a different story for each person that plays the game...which is why it makes it so FUN! and Heavy Rain will definitely deliver a story better than most movies made these days (District 9 is awesome by the way)