Conveying Narrative in Story-Driven Video Games

Recently, the newest Call of Duty game has been receiving significant online criticism for its apparently crass and ridiculous story; this, per se, is not interesting to me. The games have historically, since no longer being set during WW2, had exploitative and poorly-written stories which began as functional, genre-typical backdrops to a first-person shooter game but over time became even lower-quality and overreliant on shock value to try and recapture the success of Modern Warfare‘s nuclear bomb mission and execution sequence. Those were very good pieces of action storytelling for a computer game; the former was unexpected and brief enough to retain its impact, and the latter was a strong homage to things such as Half-Life‘s introductory sequence. The criticism of Advanced Warfare, though, is interesting because it shows, to me, that there are two very distinct approaches to criticising storytelling in video games. Having not played the game I can only discuss the critical debate around it, but that is the interesting part.

What erupted as the focus for criticism is a ridiculous button prompt to progress a cut-scene that actively – from the way it appears – counteracts any intended emotional impact or good taste that was possible. Without playing the game it is impossible to speak authoritatively on whether, were the moment not ruined by obtrusive game-elements, it would be a good moment of storytelling – but this is not particularly relevant. Discussion of the “effectiveness” of a story requires consideration of the entire work. The criticism of this particular scene is as much a criticism of how games convey stories – and indeed this can be applied in some form to how any fiction conveys its story. This is a matter linked to the quality of the story itself in many ways, but crucially distinct. A good story (not to assume that Advanced Warfare necessarily has one) conveyed poorly still results in an unsatisfying piece of fiction.

In video game terms the recent trend towards needing nominal, meaningless input from the player to progress a story sequence – usually called a quick-time event (QTE) is an unsatisfying approach to storytelling discrete from the stories told. QTEs are used to add interactivity to story moments that the core game mechanics cannot support by reducing them to simple reaction tests – and in so doing add pointless busywork to interrupt the narrative flow. A story that cannot progress until an arbitrary input is given is not improved by the presence of that arbitrary input. Consider, in contrast, Modern Warfare and its post-bomb level. There the process of crawling out of a wreck is not reduced to arbitrary input and oppressive superfluous GUI; it is framed as an ordinary level that simply ends differently. The flow of the story – the way the event is conveyed – is not incongruous with the flow of the wider game. Yet the most powerful depiction of the “classic” QTE (not considered here in the context of a combo finisher in Bayonetta or similar) is really the twist climax of Bioshock – itself a commentary on the lack of agency interrupted game storytelling offers. If a storytelling medium only works as a commentary on its own ridiculousness, it is self-defeating. This is the crux of the opprobrium around Advanced Warfare’s funeral scene, I think; the storytelling format of the QTE to advance otherwise non-interactive scenes is grossly unsuited to the scene and indeed as a device in general.

Finding an amicable solution to this disconnect, I think, requires an understanding about how narrative-centric games can best tell stories. The ultimate disconnect is the model of a wholly non-interactive main narrative distinct from played sections; games such as the later Final Fantasy titles are a good example. The main story is a fixed set of chapters told in cutscenes with the gameplay travelling the world in response to them. The two things run parallel, making the actual method of conveying the story fundamentally no different to a film. This is different to a QTE-style cutscene; it does not require contextless input to make things happen. Instead, one watches a scene that is effectively a briefing for the upcoming gameplay. The villain acts – be it Kefka poisoning the river, Sephiroth attacking Aeris or Sin destroying the stadium – and the played section is the response. Even if the story cannot change the agency comes from how each player responds to the prompt – did they send Cyan or Celes out afterwards? Was their team to fight Jenova magical or strength based? The Persona games are another good example; in P4 the “gameplay” is to respond to each Midnight Channel case while living a daily life. The interactivity is not “press X to put on 3D glasses” (input needed for something immaterial) it is “do I ditch my date with Chie because the band need help?” (input shaping how the player progresses the story). Such RPGs may not have the best-written stories, but their way of conveying them is less intrusive. Thus it is clear how narrative conveyance is not the same as narrative quality.

How, then, does this reflect on Call of Duty? A FPS does not work like an RPG, although both may want to tell a story. The simplest answer would be to save the interactivity for where it matters. QTEs to do asinine things for the sole purpose of adding a button input in an otherwise uncontrolled cutscene add nothing to the storytelling and can seem crass and obtrusive. Mass Effect is a shooting game that lets its story be told without the need for superfluous gamist elements and at the same time has gameplay sections that are very good. The post-bomb level of Modern Warfare is a very good way of conveying events because it lets the game do it without changing anything. Yet this os an almost purely mechanical discussion; it is about how games should convey their stories in ways that play to the strength of the story without compromising either story or game. Those stories – and their limitations and failings – are a completely different critical matter, more akin to literary analysis than mechanical, technical dissection. Gone Home has become a very interesting and divisive case study surrounding conveying a story but regardless of feeling about that specific game it remains proof that frameworks exist for storytelling that are there for the taking. Storytelling in games and the stories being told build on each other; if an exploration and experience driven game is badly written its strong medium is not a guarantor of success any more than some putative narratively-outstanding game conveyed via QTEs and awkward interactions would be. Many games poorly tell poor stories, but the changes needed to improve one aspect are not necessarily those needed to improve the other – and atop all that the actual mechanics used are a third design pillar that needs weight. In a discussion about books some time ago I talked about three elements a good book has in balance, and it is roughly analogous. For books, I feel it is prose, theme and plot; a book can tell a fun but unambitious story or a complex and deep but dry one. Conveyance of ideas is, thus, as important as – and really distinct from – quality of ideas.

Indeed, the trend for adding a kind of spectator mode for people who want a more visual-novel-esque experience is something that can only benefit games. If the gameplay is kept distinct from the story – with the ability to keep only plot-affecting decisions, then those decisions can be made more ambitious and the focus put on making a story worth telling. This would not compromise gameplay for as I suggest above in most cinematic, linear-plot/nonlinear-approach games the gameplay is responding to a statically told story. Being able to skip the gameplay optionally would not mean that gameplay need be made less good – any more than people skipping cutscenes means the story and storytelling need be compromised.



  1. jpmeyer

    So a couple things:

    1) Not sure if you didn’t really discuss it because it doesn’t seem to matter for this critique or not, but a second point I was trying to make with the QTE is that in the grand scheme of things, that scene doesn’t matter at all. What I mean by this is that the meat of every COD game is sinking hundreds of hours into multiplayer, compared to spending like 5-10 hours in the story which is for all intents and purposes a tutorial before you jump into MP.

    2) The twist of Bioshock is a good example of not really thinking these mechanics all the way through in that it makes sense if you have played the game up until that point, but fails spectacularly when you think about all the people who picked up the game, played it for 15 minutes because they liked exploring the city but then stopped once the manshooting started since that wasn’t really that fun for them.

    3) And of course, this sort of stuff goes back to “Why are we even caring that much about the story when we try to analyze and critque a medium where story is completely optional?” I wish I could remember where I read this, but the best analogy that I’ve read is that the story in a video game is not analogous to the story in a film, but rather it’s analogous to the soundtrack of a film.

    4) Toss in obligatory comment comparing the fear about Hepler’s “Push button to remove gameplay” comments along with the absolutely terrible storyline conclusion in ME3 vs. the absolutely fantastic multiplayer mode in ME3.

    5) Then finally there’s really clever ways of hiding “fake” interactivity, with my favorite examples being Planescape Torment (you get 10 different dialogue choices but they all do the same thing) and again Mass Effect.

    • r042

      Very good points I hadn’t thought of myself that set what I wrote in a very interesting light – thanks for the long reply.

      A few thoughts on yours:

      1) I completely agree the SP of these games is effectively an afterthought to the consumer – it exacerbates the disconnect between what people buy the game for and how it is sold (there’s an endless amount to be said about multiplayer games and theming and their interaction with narrative SP I think).

      2) Also a really good point, and I am not sure if there is a ready solution. Bioshock (the first one most of all) I think really is a game that is critical of whether or not gaming and shooting is the right medium for the job (and I don’t think the sequels capture that or respond to it as well, not that they don’t have equally interesting things going on.)

      3) I really like that analogy. I have written a few posts here about applying that thinking to tabletop war/board games, where plot/theme is often wholly optional. It really interests me.

      4) I actually liked Mass Effect 3’s ending but can’t quite explain why except it reminds me of Ideon which I also like. The comments about the optional gameplay thing came from seeing stuff about it discussed on tumblr where there was a debate about whether “playing out the story minus the skill elements” was meaningfully different to watching a Let’s Play. My conclusion was especially for something with many dialogue character choices like ME/Persona a visual novel-esque version would be valuable.

      5) That is something that can equally be awful; Dragon Age Origins was egregious for “talk someone down but we need a boss fight so OH LOOK YOU ARE ATTACKED/BACKSTABBED ANYWAY.”

  2. jpmeyer

    Oh oh oh:

    1) To tie everything back to my initial complaints, it also goes back to my annoyance at “the disconnect between what people buy the game for” AND ALSO the disconnect between how the game is reviewed. Seriously, read random game reviews for anything where multiplayer is important and it’s either not discussed on the micro level (reviews of games like ME3) or ties into the lack of coverage/discussion/etc. for entire genres like MMOs and MOBAs.

    2) Ever since I read that Tevis Thompson article I have come around 100% and firmly believe that the Bioshock games are actually really really bad. And a biiiiiiiiiiiiiiig important point here is that they are some of the most critically acclaimed games EVER, so this isn’t even a critic/gamer disconnect issue (like the sort of thing that annoys a lot of GGers when they go qq they docked my favorite game 1% because of butt cameras qq), it’s a “reviewers are fucking terrible at their jobs” issue.

    4) I actually wish they removed what little combat was in PST from it because it’s almost so totally arbitrarily in the game and the amount of time spent in combat is completely dwarfed by the amount of time in conversation.

    5) Oh, I mean this in terms of when they actually succeed, which is really damn rare. And coming at it from another angle, you can have a game like Alpha Protocol where reviewers and quite a few gamers didn’t realize at all just how reactive and branching and interactive the game was due to the ways that they played it (one time through and done) and the skill involved with designing the branching organically rather than like “CLICK LEFT BUTTON FOR STEALTH PATH AND RIGHT BUTTON FOR COMBAT PATH AND MIDDLE BUTTON FOR TALKING PATH” sort of crap.

  3. Prof.mcstevie

    They should have made it so that the player is not forced to pay respect, but is fully by choice. They are telling you to not only do something in a horribly intrusive way, but they are trying to TELL you that this person deserves your respect rather than showing it, a classic faux pas of badly crafted story.

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