Kirby's Creator Isn't Thrilled With Video Game Storytelling

"As a long time gamer," Sakurai writes in his Weekly Famitsu column, "I often find the stories told by games to be bothersome." Indeed, many games seem to take their time laying out the beginning of their stories, showing long (and sometimes unskippable) cutscenes, or limiting what actions the protagonist can take before finally relinquishing control to the player's hands.

This sort of intro can ruin the tempo of a game and, in the worst cases, break any immersion the player was hoping to achieve. Sakurai, who created Nintendo's pink spherical iconic character, Kirby, and also worked as a designer on fighting game series Smash Bros, goes on to say, "Perhaps my desire to play the game makes me too impatient towards any elements that seem to interfere with that."

Scenarios are a necessary element of games, Sakurai admits. The game world needs some sort of background in order for the characters to exist, and providing players with a story-based objective adds to the emotional investment and enjoyment of a game. But video game scenarios are fundamentally different from the scenarios in other forms of media. Sakurai brings up the death of characters in games as an example. "Take when a character you have spent time building up dies or leaves your party: for someone playing the game, it feels unfair." Sakurai explains. "The departure of a companion. In a standard story, this is a very basic plot point. But in games, it leads to a disruption."

Video game scenarios are fundamentally different from the scenarios in other forms of media.

We've all encountered that point in a game where we fight a boss character only to be defeated because the story requires it. The game essentially penalises us when we have done nothing wrong. On the contrary, we have been playing by the game's rules, and then the game cheats. "And yet," Sakurai goes on to say, "there are emotions that cannot be stimulated without such penalties; in fact some games end up sticking with us because of them."

It all comes down to a question of balance. Sakurai himself directed and wrote the scenario for Kid Icarus: Uprising. By holding the reins, Sakurai was able to write a scenario that played on the benefits of being a game. For Sakurai, by being both director and scenario writer, he was able to give Kid Icarus a more unified balance and eliminated as much scenario-based penalties as possible.

In closing, Sakurai writes, "Certain tropes, like ‘the departure of companions' and other scenarios that are standard, or even treasured, in other media, are not favourable in video games . However, the opposite is also true. I hope that more video game-specific scenarios will be created and utilized. They work because they fit a game's content and gameplay. The best thing is to utilise this and build stories that cannot be told in other media."

ファミ通.com [ファミ通.com]

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    I agree about taking the controls away/limiting what input you can have. It's very annoying.

    I don't see how the game being unfair to the player is a bad thing as a plot device. To make the player feel they did everything right and still got an undesirable outcome is a powerful emotion, and in a medium that traditionally has problems eliciting emotional responses, games need everything they can get.

      The problem is that often when that happens, it's a deviation from what is expected to happen. The term often used is gameplay and story segregation.

      The idea that a complete badass that can mow down hundreds of mooks without breaking a sweat can get captured by a handful of the same mooks just because it happens in a cutscene is ludicrous. It's breaks the established rules of the story.

      A good story is internally consistent. Games that rely on breaking those rules for the sake of story beats are basically admitting that the framework they've established does not work for the story they want to tell.

      It would be a bit like Superman suddenly being unable to fly simply because he would be able to solve whatever problem he faced by flying. Nobody buys that.

        Yeah, I agree. But Sakurai has it wrong here:

        “Take when a character you have spent time building up dies or leaves your party: for someone playing the game, it feels unfair.” Sakurai explains. “The departure of a companion. In a standard story, this is a very basic plot point. But in games, it leads to a disruption.”

        No. Character companions who go running off if the story requires it makes sense, it's consistent, and it's a realistic thing to do.

          I'm fine with it if it's something that you know is a possibility. Baldur's Gate had a system where party members would leave you if your alignment strayed too far from their own and also had a subplot with an NPC that would leave your party for personal reasons.

          All of that was well telegraphed and within the rules of the story, so I have no problem with it. If it's handled well, it can be done. Most games simply do not handle it well.

        Aye, I agree. Don't get me wrong, it still needs to make sense and be consistent.

        This is where I think FF8 did one boss (there are plenty of other examples, but this is my favourite) really well - really minor spoiler.

        Everyone remember X-ATM092, the giant mechanical spider at the Comm Tower? It kicked your ass if you levelled normally, and the whole point of the fight was to run away or die. However, if you stocked up on magic, AP and boosted compatibility with some of your GFs he was possible to beat.

        It is nice to see bosses like that which although have the guise of being invincible, you can actually beat - even if it is bloody hard. That just seems more realistic to me.

        Last edited 15/02/13 4:20 pm

          now did you have to look up the mech numerical designation or are you slightly insane like myself and can just remember it because you sunk god knows how many hours into that game? :P
          Also, DBZ tenkaichi did this a few times and even rewarded you for winning the battle you were supposed to lose by unlocking a number of "what if" scenarios to play through, though the short plots seemed kind of phoned in, it was nice of the devs to acknowledge that some people are just better at the game and able to beat their deliberately frustrating and nigh on impossible content.

    no way. i love storytelling in video games. they are the only games i can complete. i'm pretty much bound to platform and rpg games because the story reels me in. i can't take senseless shooters, sport or mindless hack and slash games, they bore me to no end. with a story, it feels like there is a point to the game. a reason i am shooting, hacking, or whatever.

    "kirby was doing cake and then evil happened"

    it's almost too exact a reflection of his perspective...

    yeh i agree, i remember playing final fantasy whom i gave a certain character full buffs like the best stuff i had in my inventory.... only to see him never return with my stuff, so i restarted my game and striped him of all his powers!

    .... like you just wasted hours of my life training that guy just to see him go, yeh it sux

      Have to disagree.

      Played all the Final Fantasies for what it's worth so you can choose any spoiler with character leaving/dying. Grandia too and other RPGs or any genre where it happens.

      If you are aware before hand that they character may leave or die, you probably won't use them or give them items or play with them. THEN it will be unfair, as they will just be wasted space in the game.

      Games don't make a character leave or die for "funzies" or "just cuz" - it's to further the story and prompt an emotional response from the player. In fact, your post proves this so well. You say how annoying it was it was to see him leave with all your stuff - well I bet that moment stands out to you when you think about that game. Hopefully it's at least in because you lost the character, not the items.

      Anyway, I don't disagree with your frustration but it's all part of the experience. I've certainly been annoyed/sad at the loss of a character - sometimes only later do I realise that the frustration of "losing all that time I spent building that character up" is actually, the sadness of losing my connection with that character.

      Sakurai is cool guy and its good to know he won't kill of Kirby haha, but some games are like his and some games aren't. All good.

        "further the story and prompt an emotional response from the player" that's all well and good when done right, but so often in games a character will leave or be killed off for seemingly no good reason because whoever wrote it wanted to incite a response, but it comes of cheap and unfair when done incorrectly.

        there's a difference between being saddened because one of your best soldiers and favorite characters die and being pissed because whoever wrote the game just wasted x amount of your time for the sake of a throwaway plot point (because more often then not the characters departure has no actual significance).

        I don't think sakurai is saying characters shouldn't die or be lost, but rather they shouldn't die and be lost for no good reason, or because the plot required it, there's really not many things more annoying then when that rush of elation from winning a hard boss battle is squashed with a cutscene of you getting your ass kicked.

        it happened to me recently when playing costume quest, there was a fight in part of the game that you're meant to lose, however it's not impossible and I managed to beat it (was a tough as nails fight though), I immediately felt elated that I had just won a really difficult fight, but then I got shown that despite me efforts the game cheated and I lost anyway, was the most disjointed I had been from the plot in that entire game, it didn't elicit the feelings it was intended to because it felt cheap and abusive.

        and in some games there is also the gameplay to consider, if a character dies that had been part of your team composition the gameplay suffers, take xcom for example, if a vital member of your strategy dies you either have to start a new member from scratch or hope you've got a reasonable leveled alternative ready, it works on the most part in that game because it's largely designed around said feature, and if your member dies it's almost always because you made a mistake, not because the plot demanded it so you don't feel cheated, but if it happens in a game where you weren't already prepared for that eventuality and did nothing to incite it then you feel cheated.

        It's important to maintain a balance of immersion, you don't want to disconnect people from your game, you want them to actually feel the loss without feeling like they lost something they shouldn't have.

    So when the character we shall call "the pink and red elephant in the room" dies, I don't feel that it is too detrimental to the gameplay. At the point that the "black and white elephant with the long silver tusk" falls on the aforementioned pink/red elephant, we have not actually progressed a great deal through the game (the first time anyway) and have not likely invested too much time into character development. If you "have" invested the time, chances are it is not your first playthrough and you know it is going to happen already. You may be OK with this however. On my first playthrough I did very little in the way of grinding and leveling limits etc, now though when I play, I can't leave Mid without first having meteorain on Cloud and wont let red/pink die without maxing limits and having its ultimate weapon.

    I don't mind control being taken away if it is a meaningful use of time. In JRPGs especially, you get used to the game coming to a standstill repeatedly, it is how quickly it gives you control back that can make or break the game. Kingdom hearts 2 was notorious for 5 steps - cutscene - 10 steps - cutscene but the game itself was great fun when it let you play.

    If you play RPGs almost exclusively you likely consider these story sequences to be part of the game, not as a detriment but as a mode of gameplay itself even if you are not actively doing anything except watching a story being told. Characters in an RPG are nothing without the story to drive them and anytime you learn something new is generally time well spent.

    I hate story discussions. They're entirely subjective and while yeah, there are principles that are tried and tested and work but I disagree with any notion that lays out a rule for storytelling. When someone says "you" they always mean "I". There is a segregation between gameplay and story but I think it's a little different than what most think. There's the game and the story but people like to experience both differently and no amount of work can ever really account for taste. Some people MUST win. It isn't even an "if" or a "but". They MUST. And sometimes this means finishing something to find out the ending is unhappy, that you didn't get to use your whole fleet or that something they said would happen in a story just didn't.

    People don't give as much of a shit in movies because they rarely have their own personal stake in it. They're willing to let the movie take them away. Many see game stories as something that rewards you for playing well, rarely do we see anyone mention thematic elements carrying over from gameplay to story, only practical ones. I'd like to see players take their professional critic hat off once in a while and just let someone tell them a story without judging or getting swept up in internet mobs. The ME3 debacle left an awful taste in my mouth, that people felt like they deserved everything they ever wanted. People were angry about the endings to Coen brothers' movies but moviegoers didn't start a petition bringing up press releases where they were mislead and wanting the story changed to suit them. Literally within hours there was an uproar. I saw no "well, here's an idea..." or "I have a theory...". No discussion. Just anger and vitriol that they didn't have has much of a say as they wanted in the last half an hour. They didn't humour any ideas or discussion that makes storytelling in films and books so appealing, that maybe there was a point in the author not giving you limitless possibilities in the end. We could posit that perhaps it's perfectly thematic that no one person can change the course of destiny. It requires others and the fate of the world can't be by your actions alone. Then again, it could not.

    However you like to argue, that's what makes stories great; the ideas that individuals can bring to it, interpretation and discussion. In games there's only anger when people don't get what they want. It's disheartening for me and it must be even more so to writers who don't feel like they can be bold or take chances because literally whenever a game strays from formula or what's expected, it's incredibly divisive. They get threats, petitions and legal action against them. I'd have to say the fault doesn't lie entirely with the creators. It'll never happen but consumers may need to take a little more consideration and responsibility in the way they consume media. It isn't ALWAYS someone else's fault.

    Just chill. There isn't any one way to craft a great story, just keep an open mind and try not to let mobs define your taste and reactions.

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