[Feature] Has Storytelling in Games Gone Backwards?

Published on February 27th, 2014

I once interviewed John Zuur Platten, a video game writer with quite a résumé, including The Chronicles of Riddick and F.E.A.R. 2. He said writers should have an order of priorities for storytelling:
“1 – Play it.
2 – Show it.
3 – Say it.
4 – Cutscene it.”
Think of storytelling in games and a few examples come to mind. Half-Life, Baldur’s Gate, Bioshock, The Last of Us. All of these are unique in the way they tell their stories, and all have garnered suitable praise. But as the years pass, one thing is pretty obvious: cutscenes, cutscenes, and more cutscenes. Thinking of these priorities and seeing the amount of quick time events, cutscenes, and loading screen briefings that happen these days boggles my mind.

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Half-Life is absent of cutscenes. You’re always Gordon Freeman. Everything that happens to Gordon Freeman happens to you. There isn’t a cutaway to the evil soldier commander or Xen before Gordon enters the portal. This is a completely admirable method of doing things, and something I’m sure all of us would like a bit more in recent games. Of course, try too much “Play it” and you get something like Call of Duty, where you’re thrown from character to character to character to character, just to show every little event that happens in the loosely-told story.
This isn’t to say all games at this time were like this. Baldur’s Gate also came out in 1998, yet blends all four priorities. Of course, it can’t be expected that an RPG is absent of cutscenes or off-handed speech that reveals plot. But I raise Baldur’s Gate as an example of what I view as the closest thing we gamers have to perfect storytelling. It allows for a more cinematic experience than Half-Life, and one of larger scope. At the end of your journey, you’ve probably lost a few party members to a random bandit or wolf…or bear…or wyvern. But this all adds to your own story. On your path to stopping Sarevok, not only are you following the game’s stories through the cutscenes, dialogue, and gameplay, but crafting your own through your choice of party members and adventuring.

It could be argued that The Elder Scrolls series somewhat continues this tradition minus party members, but I’d disagree. The game’s story is not nearly as integral to the core experience. It’s more of a sandbox with some great lore and world design.
Move forward to 2007 and we get another game hailed for its storytelling: Bioshock. The environment of Rapture tells you the story. All of it fits into the “Show it” category, and I’d argue Bioshock has presented this method better than any other game (besides maybe the Metro series). The major failing point in Bioshock for me is the gameplay’s inherent clunkiness and general boringness. It doesn’t add anything to the story itself, or lend itself to the game. I think Bioshock is really just a point-and-click or novel stuck in an FPS’s code.
My final example is The Last of Us. I was a believer in this game. Having loved Uncharted, this was my first game to preorder in a few years. I picked it up day one and beat it the following afternoon. What I took away was two major, conflicting elements: decent story and decent gameplay. If this game was gameplay-heavy, it would be average; likewise if it was story-heavy. But The Last of Us had a really great marriage of the two, resulting in the game we all played and loved. The gameplay was clunky at times, but that was when the story was really great. The story slowed down, but the gameplay was tense and harsh. Of course, there is something like an hour and a half or two of cutscenes in this game, but as a whole it lasts around twelve hours. I think by having an A-grade concoction of story elements, this game really shines.

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As a medium, gaming really has a lot to offer in terms of story. If developers would take examples from some of the greats, games would definitely be considered more of an art form, and the industry would be in a lot better shape. But as it stands, the bestsellers are games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Madden, and Borderlands– good games in their own right, but they do nothing really new, nor really move past the “neat toy” status that games have held for some since their inception.

Jonathon Sadowski is a hardcore playa that owns a PS2, N64, PS3, Xbox 360, 3DSXL and fairly high-end gaming PC. In his spare time, he likes to buy games to add to his ever-expanding backlog, and occasionally even play them (he is also looking to get into game journalism).

Images used under creative commons, rights to respective publishers/ manufacturers.

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