A good videogame story?

in Design

A couple years back, I attended several talks at the Game Developers Conference about storytelling or narrative in game design. The one that stuck out was by the Portal team (overview of the talk here**), and in my notes I wrote:

Narrative Philosophy: 2 stories

  1. story story
  2. gameplay story

The lower the Δ (difference), the better

Goal: Story-story should never intrude/interfere with gameplay story

Although I’d forgotten exactly what they said, the lesson stayed in my head. Recently I was reading up on writing stories for games, in particular a blog entry by Jordan Mechner (aka the Prince of Persia guy) on Designing story-based games. My favorite line (and there are many good ones):

The story is what the player does, not what he watches.

And it’s true. Both Portal and Prince of Persia do follow these principles — the story is engaging, never distracting, during play, though they don’t do well as standalone text synopsize. But they don’t need to.

Recently, I had some time to catch up on some of the latest videogames, especially story-based ones. None bested Portal or Prince of Persia* in narrative simplicity or synergy between story and action. But they did have plenty to offer:

  • Heavy Rain sports an interesting system where you advance the plot by successfully performing button combos (they show you what to do on-screen) in-between and as the plot unfolds. For example, you do button combos for opening doors, stealing a file as well as throwing a punch. Exciting as it is, it makes the plot very linear, which means the plot (the story-story) needs to be really good.
  • Dragon Age Origins had the best dialogue system; it was the only RPG I played where I felt what I chose to say (you are usually given 4-5 choices) affected what would happen next.
  • Fallout 3 has an interesting world to explore, and as much as world exploration can be counted as part of the story it was great.
  • Sam & Max: The Penal Zone had the best dialogue. I laughed. I really did.

Of course, I also had my issues with them:

  • Heavy Rain‘s storyline and characters felt canned. Cheesy too.
  • Dragon Age Origins also sported a tired storyline — not only did the plot rhyme with the Lord of the Rings but so did the cutscenes.
  • Fallout 3 was littered with so many side quests that I lost sight of the main plot pretty fast. And I couldn’t skip them because I needed to level up.
  • Sam & Max: The Penal Zone has a decent story, but because it’s an adventure game, it takes some very odd twists and turns and is hard to keep track of. (Or perhaps because it’s Sam and Max…)

Anything else I should try out?

* Take your pick: Both the original and latest Prince of Persia follow Mechner’s storytelling principles.

** I just found the original slides for the talk on Valve’s site here.

By Jason Li

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