This is a series I thought of writing a while ago–discussing different storytelling mediums (initially focusing on the very new medium, video games). Nothing really happened with it but I thought it might be nice to share it here (the featured image is the podcast/blog my friends and I were working on that’s currently in development hell).
DISCLAIMER: This was written many months ago and I just had the opportunity to finish playing The Walking Dead by Telltale Games… a game that would have had a significant influence to this article.
Games… have changed.
They’re no longer about cut-scenes, dialogue, or laughable dubbing. They’re an endless series of cut-scenes and dialogue, played by actors in motion capture suits… kind of. Alright maybe they haven’t so much changed in general, but there’s definitely more capacity for ingenuity and innovation when it comes to storytelling in video games now.
Gentlemen (and gentlewomen), we have the technology.
Metal Gear Solid 4, a game considered a modern classic by many, is the perfect example to discuss videogame storytelling.
Grab a few kids in a local high school and ask them what they think of MGS4 and they’ll tell you, “Please let us go. You’re frightening us. I don’t know what MGS4 is. Is it a drug?”
You’ll realize how quickly you’ve aged and how the heroes of your childhood are nothing but buried pages of the past.
Go home, drink some bourbon (because now you’re old enough to), and replay more of the outdated has-beens of your time. Console yourself in the fact that you can rent cars now and that you got to experience, in your youth, one of the greatest recessions of your country’s history.
What was I talking about?
Yes. Storytelling. Video games. Metal Gear! Otacon?
Grab a few better bred kids and they’ll tell you it’s either the greatest game of all time or a movie disguised as a game.
It’s not too farfetched to say that I bought my PlayStation 3 specifically for Metal Gear Solid 4. I’ve been a lifelong gamer, and I’ve been obsessed with storytelling (be it games, books, or films) for just as long.
After being blown away by Metal Gear Solid 3 (MGS3) and after having the hope rekindled within me that games can actually tell stories (someone should really fuel my narcissism and tell me to write about MGS3 so that I can tell the world why MGS3 is one of the best examples of game storytelling of all time. ALL TIME!) I had high expectations for MGS4 that were only made higher by the trailers and the demo.
But after playing through the entire game, I ended up agreeing with both parties. This was “Option C”: they’re both right. No game has done more amazing things as a medium for storytelling, and no game has committed more crimes against its genre.
There was once a time when people really didn’t expect much of a story at all—much less a decent one—from any video game. It was a pleasant surprise if a game had even a palatable plot. This isn’t even that far back: not only was this true of classics like Pong and Tetris, but also as recent as the PS2/Xbox era. It was around the PS3/Xbox360 era that as budgets for game development grew higher, gamers got older, and video games became more mainstream, and people gradually began to expect a decent plot from most of the games they played.
But to this day, I’d argue, that most people still don’t expect a quality story from a video game in the same way they would from a film or a book. This is due to the fact that most games still have an awkward relationship with storytelling and are very unaware of their capabilities as a storytelling medium.
Videogames are still teenagers trying to find their inner-selves, and they’re going through a goth/emo/punk rock/military phase. They’re still trying to prove that they can deliver a decent story—that’s a hard sell to people who aren’t already gamers.
However, not all games face this same stigma—some are even expected to deliver an adequate, if not compelling, plot.
Most of those titles belonged to RPGs (Final Fantasy traditionally being the series most expected to provide a quality story…until recently anyways) which made Metal Gear really stand out as one of the few non-RPG franchises with a reputation for quality stories.
But why? What made Metal Gear stand out in the first place?
Let’s cover one of the foundational points here before we get into the meaty parts of the discussion, because I may have started house fires by calling the whacky, 80s-action-movie-over-the-top-tin-foil-hat-jump-the-shark-with-a-jet-pack-on-story of the Metal Gear franchise “decent.”
POINT 1: A Plot’s Quality Doesn’t Depend on its Innate Characteristics.
So, this may be so basic that it’s annoying, but bear with me here… because it’s very important.
The way I worded this point might make it more confusing than it should be… it’s basically saying “you do you.”
Is that worse?
If you’re a film, be a film. If you’re a simple plot, be a simple plot. If you’re a (insert genre here) game with a simple plot, be that game with a simple plot.
You didn’t need to know the story to enjoy Super Mario. If you started asking questions like “Why is there an overweight, midget, Italian plumber running through pipes, eating shrooms, and punching turtles for a living?” then you would be giving the game more complexity than it deserves and more depth than it was asking for.
It doesn’t pretend to be a storyteller—it knows what it is.
Let’s level up here.
Take a recent game like Braid. It proposes a relatively complex story and does so nearly seamlessly with its thematic gameplay mechanic of rewinding time.
The story is ingrained within the gameplay.
Level up again?
ICO and Shadow of the Colossus are fantastic examples of simple stories done well with complex simplicity. (Is that worse?) They’re like Miyazaki films in that they take simple ideas and characters but employ them so effectively that they become instant classics.
What makes ICO’s storytelling exceptional is that it realizes what it is: a game. Instead of spoon feeding the plot to its audience, ICO’s gameplay immerses the player inside the story. Without any words, the game mechanics, the objectives, the camera, the lighting, the stages, the enemies, and all the obstacles work together to fully realize the relationship (character development) between Ico and Yorda. ICO is amazing because it is a game telling a story, not simply a game with a story.
So where does Metal Gear come in? We’ll use Metal Gear Solid as example.
From the opening conversations, cut-scenes, to a few minutes of gameplay, the game immediately familiarizes you with its world. It knows—and admits—that it’s going to be a slightly over-the-top spy game chalk full with conspiracies, sci-fi elements, and some whacky humor.
If you start listing the elements of the game, it sounds ridiculous. But when it’s presented in a single package, it works.
Its sequel, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (MGS2), is a great example of a game that pushes its own boundaries so far that it ends up becoming a parody of itself. It became almost so self-aware that it went too far. Or maybe it wasn’t self-aware enough.
MGS2 started well by presenting its familiar formula in an updated engine. Things changed, however, when the character Raiden was introduced in the second half of the game.
Despite what most U.S. and European fans may say, Raiden was an excellent character as a plot device. He essentially allowed the audience to experience the MGS world from an outside perspective and experience their hero (Snake) not as the hero himself, but as a person interacting with him.
But where the game failed was in its inability to understand its own limits, even with its ridiculous universe and plot delivery mechanics. The plot simply couldn’t justify (SPOILER ALERT) that Raiden was basically Snake in making. The whole PATRIOT system went beyond the reach of its own universe, and the famous codec dialogues of the series seemed out of place and poorly thought out in the Raiden segment of the game (I mean, why is Rose talking about their relationship problems during a highly classified and volatile espionage mission with the fate of the world on the line?).
Here’s where MGS4 succeeded extremely well for the most part.
It was well-aware of the mistakes it made in MGS2 and—whether the audience liked it (or even noticed it) or not—it took the liberty of basically retconning all of its mistakes.
The game did it smoothly enough that players could swallow it easily.
Its nod to its previous games by making each chapter represent the thematic environment of its predecessors was an excellent and subtle plot device.
POINT 2: Video Games Have to Establish Their Own Identity as a Medium.
…BEFORE WE START DISCUSSING THE OBVIOUS SINS OF MGS4! Let’s talk more about how plots in Video Games are supposed to work.
Games are incredible because they are the only medium with the potential to make the audience active participants in the plot. Despite this, games have more often than not failed to take advantage of this gift.
Where the plot was involved, the first games had little by way of audience involvement—plots were literally delivered by strings of text. Since then we’ve moved on to delivering the story though cut-scenes that let us see and hear the story, but the audience remains a passive observer of the story unfolding in front of them.
Moreover, not all games are created equal—the ability of a game to tell its story is bound to the particular genre of that game.
RPGs probably have the easiest time since they can generally get away with the same old delivery. Players expect them to move more slowly and spend more time developing a heavy exposition, so reading dialogue and watching cut-scenes does less damage to the immersive experience. For instance, Final Fantasy Tactics offered an incredible narrative experience that was achieved merely through text dialogue boxes.
(With that said, Dark Souls is probably one of the best and bravest storytellers of the PS3 generation, and it’s an unsung hero insofar as it goes unrecognized for showing new ways for RPGs to tell their stories. But that’s a tale for time.)
FPS has the luxury of being first person. The format itself just makes easier to engage the audience and make them feel like they’re part of the story. I mean, you literally put them in the shoes of the character (though sometimes when you look down in those games you wonder if you have feet at all) I’d argue it’s one of the easiest genre to innovate and be creative with storytelling.
Say what you want about Call of Duty titles but it was one of the first franchises (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault deserves mention as well) to really take storytelling to another level in terms engagement and continued lead the pack with their Modern Warfare titles in the recent generation of gaming. It took idea that “you’re this character” to another level by using cut-scenes that didn’t cut away from the first-person perspective and making the actions occur in a way that it affects the character directly (blindfolds and such).
(Half-Life deserves a mention here for their very unique take on storytelling by making it almost passive. You’re in the thick of it but you always feel like you are a victim of greater events and the ever growing world around you. They achieved something with their games that’s hard to replicate. It’s like writing a successful 2nd person narrative story)
Good story telling in the Open World genre is best demonstrated with titles like Red Dead Redemption where it showed that less is more. Not that many sound a bit weird with a game with such a giant world to explore such a diverse cast of characters but really think about it for a moment. The whole point of this genre is being organic (whatever that may mean to the style of game it is i.e. Saints Row series) as possible. Let the people discover the plot and have breadcrumbs if they want to follow but what’s really important in this genre is allowing the players to make their own stories. Give the players a world where the world itself is a story and a playground. Where they can be part of a grand story (the main plot line), the sub stories (stories of the world’s inhabitants), or make their own legends and tales.
With all that said, games always will have the fallback classic style storytelling of simply unfolding the plot through dialogues and cut-scenes.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing although in many ways it is uncreative, lacks courage, and doesn’t really help the storytelling aspect of the game industry to grow and evolve.
I’ve recently played the Borderlands series and it’s a perfect example of this. It doesn’t really try anything innovative in terms of storytelling. The characters are generally cookie cutter, story presentation (using games as a medium) is pretty cookie cutter, and story content and pacing is… damn, we are out of cookie dough. But what makes it work is that it baked some awesome cookies. Lesson here is if you can’t innovate – just do what works well. This is self-awareness all around (awareness of their own story, audience, and how their game should interact with their story) + hard work + excellence.
So where does MGS4 fall into all this?
The best thing a video game can do with its plot is taking advantage, as much as it can, of its capabilities of having the audience as an active member of the story.
As mentioned previously one of the best thing MGS4 has done with this is making the protagonist old and letting the players experience the character’s age. It made you, the player, feel what the character is feeling.
Snake coughs, he can’t smoke as long without trouble as he used to, he groans about his back and you have to apply some treatment on it to make him feel better (awesome).
You can look around during cut-scenes to take in the plot in your own way or at times to discover what Snake’s really up to (stop looking at the cleavage or trying to do a panty peek you pervert).
MGS4 used its stamina system many times to make players experience literally in their gameplay what the character was experiencing. If Snake was hurt in a cut-scene you’d see the stamina dwindle or if Snake was in a situation where he was injured you may play the game with a reduced stamina for the stage.
Those were all great and expected plot delivery from a Metal Gear game. And those were also excellent way of using video games as a proper medium for storytelling.
Ironically, as honed and sharpened as its good qualities seemed to be, Metal Gear franchise’s borderline flawed plot delivery system, i.e. long cut-scenes, were worsened in MGS4.
No cut-scenes should be 10 minute + in a video game outside of its ending—and even that’s a maybe. This should be a written rule somewhere. At which point do you differentiate between a game and a movie?
It’s not a problem if the game is based around player taking the backseat to the plot or based around watching cut-scenes.
Games like Heavy Rain and even L. A. Noire demonstrated that the taboo of games taking lot of control away from players can still work if the game itself is based around that idea.
MGS4 did not make much effort to work around its long cut-scenes. It made you sit through 10+ minutes of cut-scenes after giving you so much control and linked experience with the character that it felt like suddenly you were crippled as a player.
The most tragic thing about this is that there were ingenious moments in MGS4 where it combined its strength and weakness and gave its audience something magical. Where it delivered the story so powerfully that I’ve still have yet to find many games that replicated that energy.
A good example:
Near the climax of the game, our protagonist Old Snake has to drag his beaten body across a hellish path to prevent calamity. Tension is high as a war rages on outside counting on Snake to beat the clock before his own time runs out.
The game engaged the players by dwindling Snake’s health as he walked though the oven like tunnel, by taking away the smooth controls as players forced Snake through the physical turmoil to move forward, and if Snake ever happened to lose his strength players had to mash a button on the controller to get him back up.
As this is happening the screen is split in two with cut-scenes showing all that’s going on outside as Snake is making his way to put in scope of importance of Snake’s success and continuing to build tension with the plot.
This demonstrated that cut-scenes and gameplay can coexist in modern gaming and be used in a powerful and unique ways to deliver a story that’s only possible in video games.
This wasn’t the first time MGS4 did something like this and each time it did it added so much to the plot experience that it’s a shame the game didn’t incorporate it somehow into its longer cut-scenes.
But one thing that’s still undeniable about Metal Gear franchise is that they are unafraid to approach storytelling in their own voice and in their own innovative ways to incorporate their medium as a videogame.
It’s a shame that so many games that are released these days follow the archetype set by popular titles of their genre.
So many games copy FPS storytelling style of Call of Duty. Not many dare even try to gamble to copy the more complicated style of Half-Life.
So many RPGs fallback to read dialogues and make choices made popular recently by Bioware and their games. Even Elder Scroll series simplified their story mechanic for Skyrim.
Most innovations in storytelling these days in videogames are found in the indie games. Braid, Gone Home, or even Bastion.
Seeing how large of a team a game requires these days I can see why it’d tough for the creators to really focus on the plot delivery. It’d take a huge coordination between the programmers and the writers.
But this is why I look forward to Metal Gear Solid 5 (MGS5). Because even with its failures in MGS4 the things it did right was a refreshing breeze in the stale video game storytelling.
It seemed at least Kojima and his teams are not satisfied putting out a game that’s like everything else. MGS5 being an open world game where the storytelling of that genre is still only really cultivated by Rockstar…. really is exciting news.
Because if MGS5 decides to be even a little bit as innovative (even if not brave) as they were with MGS4 and learn from their mistakes, it’ll pave roads for other companies to explore what’s possible with video games as a medium for storytelling. And hopefully, that’ll continue to develop the medium and push the industry to see what’s possible with the modern storyteller.
Alright, that’s it.
I’ll end this with another cheesy parody of MGS4.
The age of technical limitations has become the age of self-imposed limitations, all in the name of keeping status quo from not averting from the tried and tested formulas.
When innovations are under total control, the medium becomes routine.