Storytelling and games: What are you going for, Ken Levine?

Bioshock Infinite Screenshot - 1162081

For all their visual splendor and interesting features, 2014’s currently announced titles (which you can see the PS4 side of here) have promised little in the way of narrative. Outside of The Walking Dead, few games have put great emphasis on their storyline. Ubisoft doesn’t promote the plot of Watch Dogs and The Division, but their massive worlds and variable gameplay; Capcom isn’t doting on Deep Down’s endearing cast, but on its intensely detailed environments and wondrous enemies. Bungie’s Destiny, despite its alleged emphasis on lore—lore to be put on par with Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, they say—is on everyone’s Summer agenda not for want of exposition but for exploration.

That so little genuine storytelling has been promised, yet nobody is complaining, speaks volumes about the games industry and video games as a medium. Specifically, it reminds us that, though games are capable of telling engaging stories, gameplay is the reason for their popularity. Almost laughably, particularly in recent weeks, pixel counts and clock speeds—mere technical semantics—are getting more attention than the role of cast and canon.

This is, undoubtedly, a result of the history of interactive entertainment. Rare is the game that delivers enjoyable gameplay alongside gripping delivery, though not extinct. The Last of Us and The Walking Dead brought tears to countless eyes and set many more heartbeats dangerously high. Dark Souls enthralled its players with laissez-faire storytelling and instead asked you to discern the world’s past. The Stanley Parable criticized and dissected storytelling in games through a remarkably entertaining mix of allegory and humor. Ultimately, though, the mass majority of games are preoccupied with technological endeavors with little time to spend on plotline—including the “grander” names of the industry such as Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls, which, with years of backstory behind them, practically ooze history.

Dragon Age X Mass Effect

That’s not to say games developers don’t care for story, nor am I suggesting that games are drifting away from storytelling. Ken Levine, the father of BioShock, for example, has repeatedly stated his interest in furthering video game narrative—so much so, in fact, that he was willing to close and create studios to do it.

The “winding down” of Irrational Games was paired with the news that Levine himself would be opening a smaller studio in order to pursue “a different kind of game.” Levine recently explained his still vague plans to Eurogamer, saying he wants to create a game in which “all narrative elements trigger of player action.”

Levine also detailed his issues with the current state of storytelling in games. “Narrative doesn’t lend itself to systems,” he said. “The problem with narrative is that you sort of have to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger. That gets time consuming. That gets expensive. And you’re devoting years and years of your life to this one sort of big moment.” Speaking on ways to move past this blockade and reach the aforementioned trigger-based narrative, Levine suggested choosing between two NPCs for a partner.

As easily as I’d applaud Levine’s interest in improving and exploring storytelling in games, I’d also question the direction of his efforts. The same goes for the problems he seems to have with the current situation, as many of them apply not to games but to media—to stories, really. Spending years of work on a project that viewers will digest and then mercilessly put down, eager to move onto their next media soak, is nothing new and a non-issue, albeit an irritant, for creators. More important, however, is to keep in mind that shelving a game after tearing through it in one sitting does not amount to forgetting the experience. Viewers and subsequently gamers are fans of the medium and will never be satisfied with a single title for any great length of time, barring rare exceptions like World of Warcraft. Completing an enjoyable game is a matter of satisfaction and closure, not dismissal.

The Stanley Parable

I can understand (though admittedly not relate to) Levine’s disappointment at seeing the result of his and his teams’ work being tossed aside so quickly, but there’s nothing to be done about it other than, in this case, improving the replay value of the game. In this respect, Levine’s fabled dynamic narrative appears worthwhile. As games like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain and Infamous have shown, branching endings and varied plotlines are a reliable way to encourage replaying. This represents one of the more unique and valuable qualities of games: interactivity. A movie can be re-watched and a book reread, but the content will never differ, only the viewer’s interpretation. Literally altering the story itself is reserved for games and is a trait that, I would argue, has yet to be fully utilized.

However, will narrative alone bring players back? And will it do so more easily than the player simply getting the urge to replay a game some point in time? It’s doubtful, again because games are not bought for their storylines. In fact, we excuse their consistently lackluster and cliché stories for that exact reason. God forbid games be held to the same standard as novels with regards to storytelling; mass-hits like Shin Megami Tensei and The Elder Scrolls would quickly fall to shambles. This isn’t necessarily a problem with the medium but a characteristic. It’s agency over exposition, trading that page-turning quality for addictive gameplay.  

This brings me to the dynamic narrative Levine says he’s pursuing. Although the idea is clearly in infancy, it clearly revolves around the player’s actions affecting the flow of the game and deciding how events play out. Specifically, certain options will be discarded in favor of others, thereby hand-tailoring each playthrough to something wholly unique, perhaps even among all playthroughs and not just your own.

BioShock Infinite

Promising as this sounds (and familiar … Mass Effect), I would argue that the issue with stories in games is, rather than the structure itself, the quality and coherence of the plot and the effort put forth by the developer. Writing positions have gained prominence in recent years, owing largely to the popularity of games like Dragon Age which have invested heavily in proper writing, but are still often secondary to design, coding and so on. As a result, games are often relegated to the Naughty Dog philosophy: Design the set-pieces first and make a story to fit it. Video game stories are often thrown into the mix at the last second, made to fit the game rather than support, much less guide, it. More than anything, this undermines the medium’s storytelling prowess and is the reason for the disproportionate number of heroes who are “the only ones who can save the world.”

Introducing a branching structure and applying it to all aspects of a game’s storyline would undoubtedly offer great agency, but still fall flat without a credible story holding it up. You can structure it however you like, but a crap story is a crap story. Ironically, this can be seen in BioShock Infinite, which often forgets its status of “game” and gets lost in the allegory and social commentary that it vaunts. The characters, world and necessary flare were all there, but Infinite still grows cumbersome at times due to narrative hoops set too high, not the least of which is its paradox-inducing Tear mechanic. Hell, the last thing that game needs is a branching storyline, lest it fall deeper into incoherence.

But you know what? I’ll still replay BioShock Infinite a third time, I’m sure. And not because I want to see the story play out again, but because it’s an enjoyable shooter.

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Austin Wood
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