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.

 
BioShock

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.


 
ICO

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.