With the exponential evolution of narration and story development in video games since the turn of the millennium, the gaming community has grown more sophisticated and demanding in terms of storytelling. Arguably, the most severe criticism hits games where there’s more than one possible way the game can play out – in other words, games that feature some sort of choice available to the player.
In this post, I’m going to do some light exploring into the development of storytelling in the video game industry, and address the legitimacy of various types of criticism regarding narratives particularly in games with freedom of choice.
Back when video games were just starting to gain the momentum that would make them the fastest-growing industry in the world – say, around the time Nintendo launched the first Famicom – storytelling wasn’t as common a concept in game development as it is today. In fact, most games didn’t have a narrative at all, but only a premise – and sometimes not even that. Arguably, Nintendo began opening up storytelling possibilities for developers with the Famicom, but still at this point plots were hardly anything more complicated than “save the princess from the villain”, or “slay the evil monster”.
The point can be made that deeper storytelling was mainly the domain of role-playing games, such as Final Fantasy, early on. Even if the story itself was hardly any more unique, fresh, or even complex than most other games, role-playing games tended to push the story into the game in a much more visible way – in these early times, that meant a lot of dialogue and descriptive text.
Back in those days, there were a few games that attempted to tell actual stories, but hardware limitations and the general reputation of the medium (Nintendo did market the NES in the west as a toy – potentially saving the western industry from ruin in the process) caused those attempts to fall short of being serious narrative vessels. Memory limitations in particular forced developers to omit most of the actual storytelling from the games themselves, and the usual solution was to use the instruction manual as a substitute. This posed further problems because the people responsible for designing the manuals sometimes were in no way involved in developing the actual game, resulting in unclear, incomplete or outright conflicting information about the story. The last nail in the coffin was often translation, commonly carried out with low priority and even lower qualifications.
As with a lot of things, Sony changed the landscape of storytelling with the launch of PlayStation. The superior hardware allowed for not only legions of terrible polygonal shapes, but a much greater depth of narrative and descriptive data as well. The potential for contained, wholesome storytelling was finally within the grasp of console game developers. PC games also reached a similar phase, not least due to the founding of Black Isle Studios, the role-playing division of Interplay, who would become known for games such as Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, and Planescape: Torment, each of these games a masterclass in video game storytelling. In other words, the mid-90’s was a clear high point in the evolution of the medium in terms of narration.
In the console space, a couple games come to mind as key in changing the nature of video games as a legitimate storytelling device. Final Fantasy VII was an important game in many aspects, including bringing the SquareSoft style narration into the larger public’s consciousness, and also presenting a story more complex than those seen in previous installations in the series.
More importantly, though, Metal Gear Solid is arguably one of the most essential games for this aspect of game development. Younger gamers may not quite understand it or at least spontaneously pay attention to it, but back when it first game out, Metal Gear Solid was unlike anything most people had ever seen in video games. Right from the very beginning, the game starts like a Hollywood movie, complete with a theme song and opening credits. Camera angles and dialogue structure were all reminiscent of action thrillers from the 80’s or early 90’s, and voice acting was far superior to arguably any game in existence up until that point.
From the following generation onward, a narrative became a fixture in most games, whether they were role-playing games or something else entirely. Games that featured minimalistic story or not one at all became a niche, and critics and reviewers adopted narrative as one of their points of focus in determining a game’s quality.
Freedom of Choice
Influencing the direction of the story appears as if it’s a fairly new phenomenon in video games, but that’s actually not quite true. While games like Mass Effect and Telltale Games‘ ever-bloating library have made the concept much more high-profile and significant, player-made choices have been present in games for a long time. Even excluding the hardly consequential dialogue choices in games like Final Fantasy, the idea of branching dialogue and even splintered narratives has been around at least since the mid-90’s – the time when, as I mentioned, storytelling in video games entered an explosive ascent.
Baldur’s Gate, a game I refer to so very often, is a good example of an “old” game where freedom of choice was present. While the greater story was fixed, the player occasionally had the opportunity to choose whether to fight or try diplomacy, or whether to align with an NPC or oppose them. Furthermore, the expansive companion pool allowed for more indirect influence on how the game would play out – depending on who you travel with, you might find yourself following one of many different paths, or even at odds with one of your companions if your views do not match.
The next decade since the mid-90’s didn’t emphasize freedom of choice in any major way. There were games with multiple endings – sometimes as many as 8 as in Resident Evil – but that was often more of a curiosity or a trick to extend a game’s replay value than anything else. It was still common practice that one specific ending was “canon”, and the rest were there just for giggles.
The Player-Involving Narrative
In more recent times, the concept of allowing the player to influence the story has become more prominent. It’s not something that has been adopted into the majority of games, but there’s a subcategory of story-driven games that heavily features the idea that the story should be different for each playthrough.
I’ve come to notice that while the concept is fascinating in essence, a number (at least a loud minority) of the audience appears to constantly misunderstand what that means. These people are disappointed in any given number of possible outcomes, as they expect there to be complete freedom to create any kind of story they please. What seems to be lost to them is the fact that there’s still a defined story there, one that the writers of the game intend to tell, and only some parts of the overall experience are even meant to change based on the player’s choices. Additionally, there’s obviously the point that having ten entirely different endings, complete with their branching lead-ups, would be a ridiculous amount of work for the developers, and would prompt another bunch of people afflicted with chronic dissatisfaction to cry out that they’re paying full price for a game of which they can only experience one tenth in a playthrough.
The gimmick of “choosing how the story progresses”, while also the selling point, is in fact the undoing of the concept. As I mentioned, games that allowed players to influence the story have existed for a long time, but only now that it’s become a subgenre of its own has it provoked the audience to voice their disappointment. The intended function of freedom of choice in games is in truth not to freely pick the progression of the story out of unlimited possibilities, but to immerse the player in the narrative and subtly get them invested in and attached to the characters and the world they inhabit. Mass Effect and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead both did that extraordinarily well, yet both received much flak from people who didn’t understand what these games promised in the first place.
Mass Effect 3 is a game that I feel deserves a specific mention, for two reasons. Firstly, this game is notorious for the amount of hate its ending received from disappointed players – namely, the ending was essentially identical regardless of either your final choices or any choices you made throughout the trilogy. Many players felt they should have had more power over what the ending would be, but what they were actually complaining about was the graphical representation of the ending. The possible events that would take place were actually fairly different; it was simply that the ending cinematic didn’t portray those differences at all. But what I was personally disappointed in – really the only disappointment I had in that ending – was how mechanical it was: instead of making organic choices or have existing choices add up to a specific ending, you basically had three buttons, one for each ending you wished to activate. That’s just lazy – why did I make any choices at all, if the most important decision is made through a vending machine? I had this exact problem with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, although that game wasn’t quite as heavily choice-driven; still, it had the same “pick an ending” button-press choice at the end, which was simply anticlimactic.
The second reason to focus on Mass Effect 3 is the fact that it’s a perfect example of mismanaged expectations on the audience’s part. The game – or the trilogy, rather – employs a common “diamond-shaped” narration format, meaning that it starts from a singular point, expands in girth and the amount of variables as the story progresses, and finally returns to another singular point, which represents the ending regardless of what happened in between. This upset a lot of people, but as I mentioned above, the point of choice is not to create an original ending, but to get the player invested in the events and the characters of the game. Mass Effect did that – I was personally very attached to most of my companion characters, and I felt I actually existed in that world, and made some kind of difference. The ending doesn’t take away the moments I spent on that rooftop in the Citadel, having a sharpshooter contest with my boy Garrus, or any of the moments that led up to that. Those moments were what the narrative was all about, not the big explosion that ended it all.
The Walking Dead, by Telltale Games, was very similar in that fashion. The first season had a finite number of variables that would make any sort of difference, but regardless, the ending would still be the same. It didn’t matter to me that everyone else had that same ending; what did matter was that I had personally made that journey, and ended up in that place, which made it unique for me. I was fairly disappointed in how Telltale gave in to all the loud complaining and developed a few entirely different endings for season 2, which will only force them to manufacture the singular starting point for season 3 as it begins. In other words, they’re still going to bring the story into a definitive “zero point”, and essentially overrule what the ending situation for any given player was at the end of season 2 – no way they’re going to write half a dozen different versions of season 3 right from the bat.
Another BioWare series, Dragon Age, has a story format not unlike that of Mass Effect, with the difference that each game is a wholesome story of its own, with a separate protagonist each time. The first game, Dragon Age: Origins, had multiple different endings that were determined organically and entirely distinguishable from one another. That sounds like the perfect way to do it, but the sequels would be good examples of the issues that this presents: Dragon Age II would take place in a different land altogether, and hardly feature any familiar characters at all. The events of Origins would be referenced in individual lines of dialogue only, and at the most in an interchangeable scene where the person elected king or queen in the first game would appear. This game would also reel the freedom of choice back in – the ending would always be the same, and the only effect the player’s endgame choices make is on the order in which the final bosses must be defeated. Dragon Age: Inquisition would still continue in the same vein – distancing itself from the preceding games, to allow a wholesome narrative to be created without suppressing the apparent freedom of choice in previous titles. This is hardly an ideal solution either, even though the first game as an individual title did something fairly respectable in its pool of possible endings.
The Reflection on the Water
The reason this kind of storytelling is so effective is because people like to see their own influence on things. The fact that they can actually see what they’ve accomplished in a game makes it feel so much more worthwhile, and is a fairly unique way of rewarding the player. They like to see themselves in the game, and to have the game confirm their input – they’re not just observers, but participants in the game’s events. But as I’ve hinted already, having a different ending for each playthrough isn’t the only way to do it, and not even the best one.
Lately, there’s been one game that has made me feel particularly influential regarding the game world: Pillars of Eternity, which I refer to a lot these days. There are no spectacular ending cutscenes, no massive branches in the narrative, and the bare-bones quest structure of the game is essentially the same each time, with a maximum of two different resolutions to most side quests. How is it, then, that a game that gives so little power to the player to steer the progression, can be so immersive and empowering?
There’s a line of dialogue one of the possible companions in the game, Sagani – a dwarven huntress – said to my character recently, that personifies the power Pillars of Eternity has in terms of involving the character in the world. The line was something in the vein of, “At least you’re honest. I know you wouldn’t steer me wrong in this.” My character is a survival-of-the-fittest type mercenary, aggressive and calculating, not big on empathy but not enjoying cruelty either, and she hates liars and cowards. Throughout my playthrough, she has never lied once – and Sagani knows that. Even with all her questionable choices and the way she doesn’t bat an eye as she attacks someone in a situation that could be resolved peacefully, no one would accuse her of dishonesty.
It doesn’t really matter if the choices I made in that game would take the main story in a completely different direction – frankly, I’m much more fascinated with a single story that the writers at Obsidian can cook up – because the way the people in the game world begin to know and understand my character over time is much more effective. In dialogues, characters don’t notice specific things I’ve done (“Oh, you chose option B in this situation? Cool.”) but rather react to the patterns dictated by my character’s imagined personality: if you’re often diplomatic, helpful, short-tempered or deceptive, people will start to pick up on that. That’s not just big decisions either – a fairly inconsequential conversation may have an actual impact in what kind of a reputation you’ll develop. That’s what will actually make the world feel like it has noticed your presence, not a different ending cinematic.
If you’re a fan of story-driven games that feature player choice, think about it: aren’t the greatest moments those when someone, just in passing, references the choice (or the consequences thereof) you’ve made, sort of giving you some affirmation about your existence in the game world? Wouldn’t it be awesome if that character didn’t just blurt out an obviously scripted mention about a specific action, but rather made a more general observation about what they perceive your character to be like, based on the way they constantly behave? It sounds too complex in context with a game like Mass Effect, but Pillars of Eternity does just that. It doesn’t just make the main character the executor of everything that happens in the game, but embeds them into the world itself, and allows for the world to acknowledge their existence in a very organic way.
In conclusion, I find that gamers have very misinformed expectations regarding games that allow them to make choices that influence the story. As I’ve mentioned already, the point of those games isn’t to generate an unlimited number of vastly different endings, but let the player take their preferred route to a pre-determined goal – as the saying goes, it’s about the journey, not the destination. In an emotional and rich story such as Mass Effect, any kind of ending couldn’t possibly match the severity of specific scenes in the games, such as making difficult decisions or interacting with another character in some way, developing relationships.
And as I explained with Pillars of Eternity as my example (once again), involving the player doesn’t have to happen in such a mechanical and stiff way as just picking a reaction in a disappointingly binary dialogue situation; it can be much more subtle and less imminent, something that paints the world as the player follows the story and includes their character in it according to how they play. That’s certainly how role-playing games were intended to be – organic inclusion in the world, rather than choosing button A, B or C to buzz in the epilogue of your choice.