Why Game Narrative Still Sucks … or … Don’t Bank Too Hard on That New Ghostbusters Game Just Yet

I just got the latest issue of Game Informer… and plastered across the cover is a very familiar logo.

Inside is a gushing preview and some admittedly great looking screenshots. Even better is the news that most of the cast is reprising their roles (Even Peck will be back). Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis are actually writing much of the dialog. Dan Akroyd is quoted as saying that he considers this the “third Ghostbusters movie.” There’s even talk of calling the game “Ghostbusters 3.”

So that’s cool.

Now the obligatory dose of perspective. Here are three reasons this game, despite all its initial promise, could still really suck.

  1. It’s a game based on a movie. See: every other game based on a movie.
  2. Remember how great the Ramis and Akroyd penned Ghostbusters 2 was? Oh yeah.
  3. No matter what they say, people don’t buy games for the stories.

Video games just aren’t very good at the whole narrative and plot thing. Even the best video game plots are mediocre when you look at them objectively. I say this with all the love for games that I have deep in my heart. They just don’t do story well. I think that’s why most cut-scenes have a skip button.

I studied theater in college. I read Chekhov and learned about narrative structure. I learned that most stories can be outlined as a series of increasingly bad setbacks that culminate in a final, climactic resolution.

Video games don’t work that way.

In most video games the protagonist gets steadily better and better throughout the game. There is the occasional minor setback: Lara Croft gets her weapons taken away and has to find them… but that’s really just a change of pace. It’s not as if she learned that she murdered her mother and married Jon Voight, or something. If every level involved the buxom explorer suffering a major setback … well it would quickly become a bore, wouldn’t it?

In Grand Theft Auto, the goal is to collect more and more money with which to buy increasingly powerful weapons. If every time you were caught by the police they took it all away and you had to work your way all the way back up from skid row, you’d probably give up. It wouldn’t be fun.

Good narratives require sharp hills and valleys – great successes and great failures. Good games require a constant, steady movement upward.

Is it possible to have truly great writing in a game? I think so. But I haven’t seen it yet. It’s going to take people who understand narrative very well, and know how to write a narrative that fits the flow of a game and not the flow of a traditional story. So far, the gaming industry has yet to produce those people.

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4 Responses to “Why Game Narrative Still Sucks … or … Don’t Bank Too Hard on That New Ghostbusters Game Just Yet”

  1. It might get annoying but you could conceivably incorporate cut scene triggers into the play action so that…for example…if you were in a Superman game and stumbled across the kryptonite-gram sent by the evil Lex Luthor, that would act as your narrative setback, described above…and emphasized by a cut scene. the joy of something like this is that it would be random and triggered by the decisions you made as a gamer. However, it would also get annoying … and of course the possibility would remain that you would skip it (especially the 2nd….Nth times).

    Also, that would hardly be the only obstacle that game designers would have to contend with. There incurable worship of horribly written action and sci-fi movies might deprive all but the best of them from ever achieving true story-telling greatness.

    Also, now that games are making movies and movies are making games…how long before the charge that “Gaming will Eat Itself” ?

    MCP–Is gaming over just as it really got started?

  2. Last question first – by no means. I think gaming as a narrative form is where the first talkies were when they appeared. Since it still hasn’t risen above the “ooh-aah” techno factor, it still suffers from the same problems that cinema suffered from when it began. Many early movies were more about solving technical hurdles and showing off that great technology. Writers came later.

    Also, I don’t think games should strive to follow the narrative conventions of literature, movies, and drama. I think it’s ok that we want our games to provided us with a steady stream of small successes. That’s what makes them fun!

    Since games are games, there are only so many real meaningful setbacks you can throw at a player without making them feel like a puppet. In general, players want to be rewarded with new and interesting things (abilities, stuff, whatever) for all the hours that they spend playing the game.

    An interesting thing about the whole games-movie phenomenon — for all the fanboyism in the active gaming community, gamers don’t actually much like these crossovers. There have been a couple standout exceptions (two that come to mind are both of Angelina Jolie’s breasts), but they’ve been more noticeable as exceptions. In general, gamers make fun of movies made from games and dislike games made from movies.

    I was actually laughed at in GameStop for buying the Spiderman 3 game. And rightfully so, it sucked.

    I think that’s just cross marketing, and it’s infecting the larger culture in ways that have nothing to do with movies or games.

  3. Entertaining Wired piece about the whole phenomenon of life imitating games this week, or maybe it was last. The one with the manga on the cover.

  4. Couldn’t find it with my web searching wizardry. Got a link? I’d be interested in reading that…

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