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Great Storytelling: How Video Games Get It Right

March 11, 2010

Great Storytelling: How Video Games Get It Right
By Louis Bedigian

An examination of great storytelling and how it’s achieved within an interactive environment.

Role-playing games have easily led the pack as the genre with the best stories. But is it the genre that got it right, or the developers behind these games? Is the RPG format – story details interspersed with turn-based or real-time battles – the best way to go?

Or could it be that the genre is secondary? Could it be that a fresh presentation is the key to impressing legions of gamers all over the world?

Let’s examine the art of storytelling by exploring the creativity and innovation of the games that have been most successful at it.

Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer

 When the Story Comes First

Many RPGs are loved for their stories. But no matter how compelling they are, at the end of the cut scene, these are still role-playing games. Quantic Dream, on the other hand, attempted to change that by building the gameplay of Indigo Prophecy around an interactive saga. Rather than send players on a turn-based quest where bits of the story are released in between hours of battling, exploring and puzzle-solving, Indigo Prophecy formed the very definition of what it means to be a story-based game.

Determined to turn this concept into storytelling gold, Quantic Dream took another stab at it and created the critically acclaimed Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer. Using the polygon-pushing power of PlayStation 3, Heavy Rain is a gorgeous, provocative, and at times unbelievable “game” that puts the story before everything else.


Words Speak Louder Than Actions

You might think that, after years of bad voice acting, we’d all be sick of hearing game characters talk. Well, we are. But there was one game that made the art of audio very interesting: BioShock. It was the first (and only, not counting the sequel) video game that built a story using audio tapes that played in the background. Instead of jumping to CG movie clips in between battles, the audio played during the interactive portions of the game. This allowed players to subtly consume the story without interrupting their gameplay experience.

Super Mario Bros. Wii

Great Gameplay is a Catalyst

Though you could argue that a big ugly splotch would never become a beloved video-game character, there is no denying that we fall in love with the characters – and thus the stories attached to them – that come from the games we enjoy playing the most. Mario, the Mickey Mouse of video games, is the perfect example of this. His save-the-princess story is rehashed in every sequel; only the Mario RPG titles (Paper Mario/Mario & Luigi) have attempted to be different.

Do we care? Not at all. Once gamers pick up the controller and punch that first brick, snatch that first coin and jump on that first Goomba, the outcome is inevitable: they will fall in love with Mario and everything associated with him. His hat, his stars, his green turtle shells – every element has become an iconic symbol of one gaming’s biggest icons.


You Don’t Have To Say Much…

ICO is not remembered for its narrative. But in addition to its unbelievable puzzles (which are without a doubt the best and most logical puzzles ever featured in a game), and beyond the jaw-dropping visuals that were both artistic and realistic, ICO featured a subtle, almost silent story that made you care about its horned hero.

The music played a major role in this, for certain. But it was the body language between the two characters that really stood out. The way they interacted with each other – the way they held hands as you led them through danger – was undeniably exquisite.

Metal Gear Solid 4

…But You Do Have To Surprise Us

What do all of the Metal Gear Solid games have in common? All four have used real-time movie sequences to elevate the quality of the stories they were trying to tell.

But more than technology, these games did things that no others had before them. The first Metal Gear Solid featured a story that was shocking, provocative and wholeheartedly memorable; it introduced us to espionage and acts of terrorism long before 24 hit the airwaves. Best of all, it included a gameplay system that was as cinematic as the story. This led to one of the most groundbreaking camera systems of the decade, marking the first time that a video game actually felt like a movie.

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