I once thought that if I had a million dollars I’d open a business where we’d take video games, record a play through of them, then edit them down to a 2 hour movie that focused on just the story. I think there are a lot of video games that this would go well for. Prince of Persia, Grim Fandango, or Full Throttle to name a few. This idea keeps coming back to me as I see people talk about enjoying the latest Call of Duty game “as it was intended” by watching YouTube uploads of just the cut scenes. But the more I think about it the more I realized that this isn’t a great idea, it’s a solution to a very real problem plaguing video games that has been getting worse.
In my opinion video games as a narrative delivery system is the second worse thing that has ever happened to the medium. (The first worse is the achievement, but more on that another time.) It was unavoidable to be sure, but as the mentality has moved more towards developing video games to tell a story the “game” has suffered greatly.
It’s been mentioned before how classic level design was less linear than int modern games. To be fair it should me mentioned that almost every game is linear whether it’s a progression of difficulty or a string of maps. However video games as a narrative delivery system has considerably tightened this down. After all, we can’t have players finding a way around a cut scene trigger and missing out on a part of the oh-so-important narrative.
The point is why are we putting up with hand-off time on a hands-on medium. If I wanted to watch a movie I’d pop some popcorn and watch a movie. When I want to play a video game let me PLAY. Some cut scenes skip if you touch any button so better put that controller down. NO. Throw that game away, put in one that lets you play and pick that controller back up. The picture on the right was found in a reddit thread lauding SquareSoft for putting pause buttons in their cut scene. Wrong. We shouldn’t be happy they’re making video games more movie-like We should be screaming “Make less and shorter cut scenes so I don’t need to pause them!” The solution we need isn’t movie-like controls on our cut scenes. We need to stop playing games for their story.
Now, like I said, I understand. I used to love the stories of video games. Heck I’d go to the arcades and hope that one guy who was really good at the game would be there so I could see another character’s ending to Mortal Kombat. But I wasn’t interested in playing the game myself, I just wanted the intro and the ending. So what was the point of all that game in between them? And taken on their own video game stories are pretty universally bad. There are a few notable exceptions, but by and large they’re not worth the effort. A lot of Hollywood rejects end up writing for video games and it’s easy to see why they couldn’t cut it in Hollywood.
Not to say video game’s can’t deliver a narrative and deliver it well well. Half Life was the first video game I remember stopping around a corner from a couple of bad guys just to listen to them chatter because I realized they were talking about me. Then I realized that I voluntarily stopped playing to take in the story being presented to me. I did that. It wasn’t forced on me. That’s brilliant. I spent hours in the library in Myst reading the book, soaking up the history of the world I was in before realizing that I was playing a video game about reading books! But I loved it because I made that choice. And there are modern games taking that same approach: Fallout, BioShock, and Skyrim to name a few. You don’t need to stop the game to tell players how to play nor do you need to stop the game to create a narrative.
But there is a next level and there is one game who dares to go there, tho it is a game I have a hard time getting into, but I know what it’s doing and I applaud it. That game is Dwarf Fortress. Here’s why this game is awesome: Tarn Adams calls up his brother Zach Adams and has his brother tell him a story in the world of Dwarf Fortress. Then they discuss what would need to be added to the game to allow for telling that story in the game. Then they add those things. But they don’t add the story. They don’t force players to play their story. Instead the players experience becomes the story. And what stories they write. Dwarf Fortress even generates bosses for you to defeat. Not I said “generates”. There’s no Lich King to defeat that some developer decided would be your boss. Beat a boss and there’ll be another one established elsewhere. Fail to defeat a boss and your loss will become a part of the lore of the world. Totally emergent. Totally open ended. Totally unlimited. Give the players a world to play in and let them tell the story. Now that’s how it should be done.