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Storytelling in Video Games

02/04/2011
Prince of Persia the Sands of Time

Prince of Persia the Sands of Time

I’m not certain how I discovered Rock, Paper, Shotgun (I call shotgun each time), but I’ve enjoyed reading the articles about video games they publish each day. Often times on the Internet discussion about video games tends to skew to lowest common denominator, but RPS is one of the exceptions. You’re guaranteed at least a couple of interesting topics throughout the week, showcasing games you would not normally hear about by the liberal media. (joke)

Anyways, Richard Garriott was recently interviewed and said that we have not yet mastered storytelling in video games. Richard Garriott, otherwise known as “Lord British”, is one of those living legends in the video game industry, creating many popular games during the 80s and 90s, such as the Ultima series. He may be a little eccentric nowadays, but he’s still the lovable uncle in PC gaming. His house was actually featured on a television show because he custom built it with trick cabinets, secret staircases, and removable walls; pretty cool stuff.

I’m one of those gamers that will play a game if I hear it has a good story. That means I will take the time to hunt down every piece of lore in a game as long as I’m still interested in the story; games such as Dead Space, Assassin’s Creed, and World of Warcraft take more time for me to play than others because of the sheer amount of text and subplot available in them. Most of my friends could care less about the story, focusing more on just pressing A or X to go kill the next person or score that basketball shot. So while I’m almost always willing to play co-op with people, with some video games though I need to go back later and replay the game just so I can pay attention to the story, as they’d rather just click through and move the action right along. More power to them.

When I look back on my favorite video games and video game experiences, story tends to dominate, although a combination of atmosphere and gameplay can often win, as is the case with any of the 2D Mario titles (because, really, there is no story…). Some of my games that are story heavy, off the top of my head, in no particular order:

Darksiders
• The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
• Skies of Arcadia Legends
Prince of Persia Trilogy
• Eternal Darkness (the only other game to genuinely scare me)
• Fable
• Assassin’s Creed
• Bioshock
• Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (the reason I bought an Xbox)

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic

And I’m sure there are lots more.

These games are trying to tell a story while giving you an experience. Let’s look at Prince of Persia Trilogy. The first game, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, is a day in the life of the Prince as he unknowingly and foolishly releases the sands of time, bringing about the destruction of the kingdom; he must set things right, and the game ends right where it begins. The second game, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, has the Prince being hunted by a supernatural entity for his crimes against time; he must journey to the island where time began and defeat the beast. Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, the final game in the trilogy, has the Prince finally returning home to his kingdom under siege, and he must restore order while battling the consequences of his actions in the previous games within himself, manifesting in the form of an evil twisted shadow double. And the conceit of the whole series is that it starts where it begans; literally, the third game ends where the first game begins.

Now, Prince of Persia does not tell the story through letters left lying around or video tapes hidden in hard to find places. These games tell the story purely through cut scenes and in game voices. And yet the story is told really well and keeps you going forward, along with the amazing gameplay and fairly repetitive combat.

Bioshock, on the other hand, is a shooter and not a 3rd person platformer. Bioshock, while it does have cut scenes and scripted moments where control is taken out of a player’s hand, does also have optional voice recorders you can collect that flesh out the story and are every bit as terrifying as a game play sequence (I’m of the opinion that audio is the superior medium). In fact, Bioshock is one of the few games to genuinely scare me; there is a sequence in the game when you are exploring a frozen laboratory with jets of steam issuing then freezing from moment to moment, and you run across a voice recorder hidden in a closet, and after you pick it up and finish listening to it, as the recorded voices die away, you turn around and realize there is a guy standing right behind you. Just standing there. Waiting. Freaked me out.

But Bioshock is unique amongst shooters. Other games such as the Halo games and Call of Duty games have a story as well, but it gets largely lost amongst the gameplay and set pieces. I really couldn’t tell you what happened moment by moment in those games; sometimes it’s just “Russians bad, Americans good, and then a nuke went off.” Which is a shame, because I know military stories can be done well, having read Tom Clancy.

Bioshock t-shirt

Bioshock t-shirt

If you look at my list of games I want to play, they are almost all predominantly story heavy. Dragon Age Origins, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape Torment…fun gameplay, heavy text games. I guess I’m a story gamer for the most part. Yet I still enjoy playing games that have little to no story, such as Mario, pinball games, and Castle Crashers. Perhaps it is a byproduct of me being such an avid reader. I don’t know.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood has been brilliant so far. Loving the story, which drives me more than the gameplay at this moment. I figure I have another 2-3 hours to go with it. I’ll probably take a break and play a shooter next…

“A man chooses, a slave obeys”

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