Objection! Can Games Tell Stories?

Welcome to Objection!

Objection is a new section where we debate hot topics in gaming, and leave it you guys to talk it out in the comments section. The first topic we're tackling is Video Game narrative, and joining us we have James O' Connor, a regular contributor to Hyper, Games Editor on Mania and PhD candidate currently writing a thesis on, you guessed it, video game narrative.

Alright. Let's get this thing started.


MARK: Alright Mr PhD man, I think most, if not all, video game stories are dreadful. Would that be a fair assumption?

JAMES: Well Mark, I don't necessarily disagree with this bold assertion. Not all game stories are awful by any stretch, but there’s a lot of rubbish out there. However, while the stories – that is, the events that occur within games – are rarely exciting, I would argue that games are ripe with narrative possibilities – that is, the way these often mundane stories are delivered. I feel, in fact, that there are some big mainstream games that are often made fun of for their crappy stories that actually have very interesting narratives. How does this distinction grab you?

MARK: This distinction grabs me. Vigorously! What big mainstream games do you speak of, and why are their narratives interesting?

JAMES: My go-to examples are usually the first two Gears of War games (and let’s hope the third one doesn’t let me down here – you reading this, Cliffy B?). When people talk about Gears, they talk about giant men ripping aliens apart with chainsaws. They never discuss the fact that it positions mankind as invaders, or that it depicts a society and a people that have been utterly destroyed, in every sense, by war. Almost nothing you do has a positive effect. In the first game, you explode a bomb that damages your side more than theirs. In the second one, you sink humanity’s last stronghold. You’re playing an incredibly fun and violent game, yet it is intensely anti-war. To me, that is interesting.

MARK: Gears of War presented as the prime example of how game narrative should work? By a PHD student. Wow!

It’s a great point, but that’s just your reading of what is essentially an excuse for bulked up dudes to shoot up/chainsaw/explode aliens. And that’s my main issue – in most games the narrative is created as an afterthought, shoehorned to fit the game mechanics themselves. If I was going to try and use the academic terms I’d say that the form doesn’t match the content. In AAA games like Gears the story is something separate, something that occurs in-between the shooty bits. I’d say a game like Flower does a better job of integrating narrative and story into the mechanics. Isn’t that the best way forward?

JAMES: Well I’d say the absolute best integration of narrative/gameplay in recent memory is Limbo. But everyone loves Limbo, so there’s really no scope for argument there.

In any case, I’m afraid I disagree with you on Gears – the story doesn’t just happen through cutscenes and backstory. They are there to explain the war you are fighting, but once you take control, you’re the one fighting that war. Or, more to the point, the characters are fighting the war, but you’re leading them through it (which I feel is an important distinction). The shooty bits are narrative, and I think the game encourages you to consider why this is the case.

Other recent games with interesting narrative aspects include Modern Warfare (not so much the sequel), Bayonetta, Mad World and No More Heroes (terrible stories, yes, but they all operate as cultural parodies), and Metro 2033 (such an interesting morality system!). Aside from Flower, Mark, which games would you give praise to in this regard.

MARK: Modern Warfare I get. It has that blockbuster feel - it’s tightly paced, guided and provides enough motivation for players to shoot the next guy wearing a turban/speaking in a Russian accent. But it’s hardly Apocalypse Now, is it? Modern Warfare is a great example of gamers happily settling for less when they should be demanding more. Being involved in an interactive story gives gaming a leg up over every form of media out there – but it’s an advantage squandered with cliché, tropes and plagiarism.

As for other games I would give praise to. Um...

At a push I would say Braid, because it integrates its mechanics into the narrative, which I love. Especially the final scene when you ‘rescue’ the Princess. But even that was spoiled with the pretentious ‘notes’ left throughout the levels.

JAMES: See, Modern Warfare interests me for more or less the same reasons as Gears of War. The AC-130 gunship level, for instance – I feel terrible every time I play that level. It’s such an unfair situation – you’re raining bombs down on the enemy, who cannot defend themselves against you, while your pilot offers disturbingly unaffected narration on your killing spree. I’m really interested in how these games can be so enjoyable, yet at the same time perfectly capture just how horrible war is, and the effect warfare has on soldiers. I look forward to waffling on about this for 15,000 words in my thesis!

As for Braid – I love Braid, but really I think it’s a game that was playing catch-up with other mediums. The problem with Braid is that once you’ve been told about/decided for yourself upon the ‘Atomic Bomb’ theory, you know that it’s the ‘right’ way to interoperate the game. Instead of being a game with metaphors, the game is a metaphor. An incredible one, but still, it doesn’t leave much to be analysed. Limbo, on the other hand, is a goldmine – I have my own theories on how the game is meant to encapsulate a lifetime of suffering over the course of a few hours, but there are plenty of other ‘readings’ out there, and they’re all as valid as each other.

So there you have it folks - that was the first edition of Objection! What do you guys think? Are games capable of telling decent stories, or are they doomed from the start? Let us know in the comments below!


    Great article. I look forward to more.

    Halo 3 had a narrative didn't it

      It might have! I imported a cheap copy from Korea, so...I'm not really sure what happened in that game. :P

    I was all like "Oh my god! A dedicated section to the greatness of Phoenix Wright! (Have I mentioned the PW and Layton crossover is the greatest news ever in the world?). I approve of this Serrels man-bear-Pegg hybrid."
    But then I read on only to find that it was less about Phoenix Wright and more about insightful debates between pros. I have to be honest, I was disappointed.
    But I suppose the intelligent discussion that ensued was enough to appease me. Good section!

    Speaking of Phoenix Wright, is it a game? I love the AA series to bits, with a notable shout out to cases of 1-4, 1-5, the overarching story of Trials & Tribulations and 4-4, and even though I know some people treat the definition of being a game as something that might be interactive, I still feel it's more accurate to call the AA/PW series more as a "interactive novel" than an actual "game", and as a "game" it's pretty poor. Sometimes you're reduced to guesswork to progress, other times it's a very basic point & click adventure game, and it's at these parts the gameplay falls flat.

      Phoenix Wright is indeed a great read (and fun to play), but I think whether it is or isn't a game is really just semantics. If you start saying what a game is or isn't, you run the risk of saying, to some extent, what a game should or shouldn't do. I know that Phoenix Wright has long stretches without gameplay, but I love the series anyway. They achieve their objectives as products, I think, whether you want to call them games or not.

      And yes, my face actually melted off when I found out about the Prof Layton/PW crossover. Not that I ever got around to finishing PL2...

      I thought something along the same lines, like this section would be dedicated to detective-type games. :P I finished the iPhone version of Ace Attorney. I wish there were more expansion stories/investigations. A big Sherlock Holmes fan too, though I must admit I'd rather leave the Holmes canon left untouched by video games.

    Gotta agree on the dude with Gears of War. One of my faviourte things about the first game was how much it set up without explaining shit. Why do you start in prison? What the hell is the immulsion running down the walls that everyone gets hard over? Are you even on earth? What the hell is going on?

    Pretty much none of it's actually spelled out for you. Hell I don't think the name of the planet has actually been mentioned in the game yet. Unless you hunt down the information you wouldn't know. But you can hunt down the information, it isn't lack of story that they didn't write. The story is there they just were very conservative with how much they were going to let you know.

    I love it.

    Also screw Braid.

      I agree with this. And after James made the point, it really made sense to me how well Epic framed the whole story.

      But Braid is still awesome.

    If you want an example of great story telling look no further than bioware. Kotor, dragon age and mass efffect all had amazing plots that drove the player onwards far more than just the gameplay

    The prime example of a game that married narrative and gameplay is Beyond good and evil. The story was one of rebellion, media use, political resistance and a few other interesting things. And it was all packaged into a game that featured a female protagonist who wasnt a sex bomb, who didnt fire a gun (discounting the cannon on your hovercraft), and who's main weapon was information. And it was a pretty decent game too!

    But alas, I feel that it's more the exception than the norm. Not to say every title out there needs to have such a strong emphasis on narrative - I've gotten many hours of enjoyment out of Modern Warfare 2. But I would like to see more titles that embrace the opportunities that that a solid story can bring.

    Loving the new section :)

    I agree that there's an important distinction between the multitude of honestly pretty terrible video game storylines and the means by which these stories are told. Narratives by themselves are (in many cases) overblown, fluffy cliched nonsense - but importantly, they allow a degree of interactivity and control that's missing from more traditional media types (films, books, epic sagas, whatever). Of course, no amount of immersion or interactivity makes up for a crap storyline, and I'd prefer well-written and well-executed story any day. The very best videogame storytelling occurs when a groundbreaking narrative and mode of delivery combines with player immersion and believability - an extraordinarily difficult thing to accomplish.

    I don't necessarily think that video games are doomed to inevitably have second-rate storytelling. Plenty of games have outstanding stories, and even if some are hamstrung by the demands of their market (or the short-sightedness of their developers), the overall trend is, I hope, for increasingly more compelling and polished storylines.

    This is my thoughts:

    The problem with games as a story telling medium is that stories by their very nature are scripted but a game needs to give the player a fair degree of freedom.
    Books and movies and plays work as a story telling mediums because that is ALL they do, games have to account for constant change and interaction.

    If the player is at every point engaging in the plot then stuff like side quests, leveling, upgrading, exploring ect can not happen because they interfere with the story.
    This leaves a couple of options:

    1: The story has to have a degree of separation from the gameplay and use cut scenes and a large scale general story that alludes the the gist of what you just accomplished - such as most big games do. This enables the game to have engaging, lengthy and challenging gameplay that will fill a 8+ hour game.

    2: The gameplay is directly tied to the story-line - every action you do furthers the story.
    This way limits the gameplay options and needs to follow a linear path. And as the protagonist needs to have a more developed personality the player can find less of their own individuality in the game.
    This suits indie games - they can focus on the story and use simple structured gameplay because they do not take too long to complete. Consider something like braid, if it was any longer they would have to re-use puzzles so much you would get bored.

    Basically, it would be very hard to make a game with long, fun gameplay and an brilliant, integrated story.
    Every enemy and character would need to have meaning and a personality, every quest a part of the larger story, every location significant.
    You would need to make a protagonist that has a deep personality while still somehow enabling the player to choose the actions.

    I dunno, maybe it can be done but not soon.

      Is the problem of story quality and gameplay linkage a technical one or something fundamental about game design? It's an interesting point you raise.

      If it's a technical problem, then eventually we'll have the ability to produce a fantastically deep and high-quality game that can link every single piece of gameplay - down to individual enemies or components - to some sort of overarching story. It's more of a question of effort and innovation, if this is true. I personally love this idea - the thought of a dynamic storyline adapting to players' actions on the fly, rather than presenting the player with a few options, is amazing.

      If it's a more basic question of game design, we have to wonder if it's even possible to design a game with that level of story complexity that also is fun to play and has satisfying gameplay. Like you say, indie or simpler games can do this because they aren't generally complicated. A very complex game that tied players' actions to consequences and bothered to define a backstory for every antagonist and every act of gameplay could quickly grow to be unplayable, or else horribly dominated by exposition and story-telling at the expense of... fun.

    Very, very interesting article. It's a shame so much emphasis is put on Gears of War and defending it. I think the sad thing is, although James does well to justify it's narrative, I can't help but feel that aspect of the story lost in the majority of its ausidence.

    I'm surprised Ico and Shadow OTC weren't brought up. They both get more than the fair of 'art game' treatment, but their treatment of narrative is extremely interesting. Taking SoTC since I played it more recently, there is for example the ongoing growths on his body, the impending sense of all the barriers breaking, yet you're forced to keep destroying. And that's not even mentioning the ending...

    I suppose we could all sit around though naming the do's and don't's of game narrative, and 101 other great examples remain unnamed...

    Again though, great article!

      Crap, I knew I should have proof read that. *Sigh*, I suppose responding to something like this on a Friday afternoon following a day of programming was never going to end well.

      I've never actually played ICO or SotC! In fact, I've never owned a PS2. I'll pick up the HD Collection for sure.

    This is fantastic. I cannot write a response to this right now though, because I too am a PhD student working on a game studies/theory thesis and could/would probably write longer commentary than the whole article. I am really pleased to see this article, though, and to read your responses to it.

    Grats to you all.

    I've played several games solely for the purpose of finding out how the story progresses, for example Disaster: Day of Crisis and The World Ends With You. Phoenix Wright is another one, which has been mentioned by a few others here.

    For me, a video game is just an interactive medium with emphasis on visual cues with the purpose of entertainment. I consider a lot of things, such as digital read-along story books to be video games, so many may not share my opinion.

    Yeah this was a really interesting point counter-point style discussion. More like this!

    It's a pity really, because I couldn't get past the poor dialog and repetitive nature of the gameplay to enjoy Gears Of War. But I totally understand where you are coming from. Another similar style narrative was the original F.E.A.R which made me feel really bad during the end of the game. I also think HotD:Overkill has a similar kind of irony in the narrative.

    I believe there are many ways in which narrative can be approached in a game however. I would really like to see someone define different game narrative archetypes as I feel this would really highlight the interesting aspects of different game narratives. For instance there's the "ironic" narrative as described here. Also for a couple more examples I could suggest there is the "exploration" narrative such as exploring the environments in Doom 1 to find the narrative, or the "traditional" narrative that many games follow. I'd like to hear what other peoples thoughts are for "types" of narratives.

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