Archive for the Game Narrative Category

The Orange Box is Great

Posted in Game Narrative, General with tags , , , , , on January 8, 2008 by Kit

It’s been a long holiday for me, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Besides the standard holiday stuff, I managed to slug my way through a bout of what can only be described as SARS wrapped in a ball of Bird-Flu served with a side of antibiotic resistant Cooties.

But I’m all better now, thanks.

One other thing I did over the break was play every single bit of The Orange Box. In a nutshell, the three of you who read this and haven’t bought it yet should just go right out and get it. The compilation is incredibly entertaining.

Of course, everybody has been touting its value. But those people are right! 5 full-sized games in one package. That’s a lot of content. Even at the outrageous prices they charge for console games these days ($56?!) it still comes out to a bit more than $11 per game.

I’m not going to break down the entire package. That has been done extensively elsewhere. I just want to give you some of my favorite points.


This is now one of my top games of all time. It’s one of those high-water mark moments that you come back to as an example of a great game 10 years after it was released. It’s so rare nowadays to open up a game and feel like you are really doing something completely different.

And Portal just so happens to answer every one of my recent complaints about gender, violence, character, and story.

Games struggle with having a good “payoff” at the end of a game. Something that really gives you a sense of having accomplished something significant. The payoff at the end of Portal is… well I don’t wanna spoil it. But it’s great. As the credits rolled, even the old lady came over and sat down on the couch next to me to watch. My only complaint is that I want more, now.

By the way: The cake is a lie.

Half Life 2

(and the two Episodes).

It’s hard to say what I find so compelling about Half Life. It’s a “first person” shooter like countless others. Its plot resembles many of its peers: Inter-dimensional demons invade the world, hero finds shotgun. Havoc ensues. The gameplay is a linear progression from one scenario to the next. Lots of combat, spruced up here and there with some low-key physics puzzles.

There’s just always been something undefinability ballsy about Half Life. The way the story is told without any cut-scenes – entirely in-game. Plot elements are introduced via scripted events… things happen in your environment when you reach certain locations, or when you accomplish certain tasks. So while the story isn’t terribly original — the telling of it is. You feel immersed in events. The world feels dangerous and somehow more real.

While NPCs might not have terribly well-written dialogue (it’s fairly standard genre-shlock), the fact that your interactions with them happen only in-game, without the cut-scene crutch, makes them seem somehow more human.

Half Life is a great example of the idea of a Zeroeth Person narrative. Our hero – Gordon Freeman – never speaks and we never see his face. Other characters speak to him, and he interacts with the world mostly through his gun. But he really is a zero. There has been no development of his character beyond the basic outline.

Contrast this with Alyx Vance, an NPC who is your companion through much of these games. Her character is fairly round (as much as can be in this genre). She has relatives, friends, a history. She talks to Gordon (us) about her life and expresses fear and worry.

If this was done via cut-scene – I think it would become cloying and boring (and Alyx still does in fact suffer from occasional bouts of mawkishness, especially in later episodes).

But because her character development happens during the action of the game and directly through our camera lens as the player… it lends the whole thing a documentary feel. As if we, the player, are in part a roving camera eye experiencing the game world through the faces of its inhabitants. We get to connect with them on our own terms.

In the world of drama, there is a phrase: “Show, don’t tell.” Meaning, don’t tell the audience that something is sad, beautiful, or terrifying. Show them the action of the scene, show them what the characters do in response… and if you do it right the audience will get it.

I think eliminating cut-scenes brings the narrative of Half-Life (all of them) a little closer to that ideal. We can choose what details in a scene to focus on and who to pay attention to. And if the scene moves us, it feels more as if that reaction is arising spontaneously (even if it is still rather artificial).

Side Note for PS3 Owners

Much has been made of the fact that load times for levels on the PS3 are much longer in Half Life 2. Well, I’m here to say that most of that has been geek hysteria. The load times are a little on the long side. But I’ve seen longer, and they aren’t game-killers by any stretch. If your complaint with this game is that you have to wait 5 more seconds than your Xbox 360 or PC-using friends… well I can only pity you.


I too miss my beloved companion cube. But I had to kill it. I had to!


Zeroth Person

Posted in Game Narrative on November 28, 2007 by Kit

I had a chat with a friend over lunch today about this whole thing with video games and narrative, and why it’s so difficult to get real emotional impact out of a video game story. I think we came to the conclusion that point of view has a lot to do with the problem.

Empathy, by definition, requires at least two people – an actor and an observer. When we watch a movie or read a story, we empathize with the characters because we are able to imagine how we might feel if such a thing were happening to us. In a story, no matter what point of view the author chooses, we are always an outsider looking in at the characters and then projecting their experiences back onto our own inner self.

We don’t empathize with ourselves. We may pity ourselves, or be angry at ourselves, or be very proud of ourselves. But we experience our own emotions directly. Empathy requires us to observe someone else, and feel along with them.

Incidentally, the existence of empathy is probably the best argument for any shred of inherent decency among humans.

Games remove both the narrator’s voice and the main character from the equation in one stroke. The “story” of a game is actually just the story of the player’s progress through the game. This has wide ranging consequences for anyone trying to make a game into a coherent narrative.

Many games are referred to as “first” or “third” person games. But this is a misunderstanding of what those terms mean. In a story written in first person, the narrator isn’t the reader. The reader experiences the words of the narrator as an interested third-party. This is even more obvious in the case of a third person narrator.

In a game, the player is actually inhabiting the main character and directing their movement within the game world. Video games are closest to the rarely seen “second person” viewpoint, where the narrator refers to the main character as “You” and the narration is often in present tense. But even in an edgy novella written in second person, you are obviously reading about the words and actions of someone else who isn’t really you. The narrative voice is still present. You still have the distance required to create empathy.

It’s telling that most of the very few moments in video games that generate any real emotion (besides frustration) happen in the context of cut-scenes… “out of game” moments where the game pretends that it’s actually just a movie for a few minutes. The camera swings away, and we see the main character from a third person perspective as they overcome some important bad guy or whatever.

But the emotional content is gone once we are back behind the controls. No matter what happens during that cut-scenes (or indeed, during any of the rest of the game) we are still the same person. Our in-game avatar may have a new jet pack, a larger missile launcher or an ice-tiger to ride into battle with, but we haven’t changed at all.

We, as players, are static characters that move through the world of the game basically untouched, like ghosts. Our avatar’s own mother could die and we, as the player, would be essentially unchanged. Our avatar may cry at the funeral, and we might find the cut-scene quite affecting. But the avatar at the graveside is not the same character as the one we control. When we are back in the driver’s seat, we still have all those Hidden Packages to collect.

I’m proposing a new point of view, just for video games. I call it zeroth person, because it recognizes that no matter what kind of cut-scene trickery the writer uses, the main character is essentially a cipher, a nobody, an empty vessel in a costume acting only as a puppet for the player to conduct. We can’t feel empathy for it: It’s us.

This doesn’t mean that a game can’t have emotional impact. But writers of games who want to craft emotional experiences for players need to start looking for ways to solve the problem of the zeroth person. If the action of the game is to have any emotional impact beyond the cheap sucker punch of a cut-scene, it’s going to have to find a better way to generate empathy.

A good start for writing more human games would be to stop giving us so many reasons not to empathize with anybody in the game by making the focus nothing but hacking and killing your way through legions of interchangeable bad guys.

Compelling supporting characters with interesting things to say would really help. The few times outside of a cut-scene that I’ve experienced a glimmer of real emotion during a game have all revolved around the supporting cast. I’m thinking of all the poor scientists cowering in isolated rooms in the wrecked underground complex during Half-Life (a violent “first-person” shooter game that eschewed the cut-scene altogether). The (admittedly slightly melodramatic) climax of the Gray Fox sub-plot in Oblivion was kinda touching. And going back a bit, the ancient Sierra graphic adventure The Black Cauldron almost made the pre-teen MCP cry (when Gurgi died).

What about you, dear readers? Have any other moments in video games moved you?

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

Posted in Game Narrative with tags , , , on November 27, 2007 by Kit

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.