Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A video game story structure I'd like to see more of

Apologies for lack of posting. I got really, really sick on Sunday and remained such throughout yesterday. Still a bit wobbly, but I can work.

So I've been thinking a little bit about video game storytelling. Basically, most genres of video game tell their stories indirectly, through visual and musical cues and the gameplay itself, without much in the way of traditional text. (See Mega Man II for arguably the moment at which this technique was first perfected.) The player themselves constructs most of the narrative, imbuing their character with personality through the decisions the player makes in the game.

Of course, as video games have become more filmic, this approach has been somewhat superseded by the use of tools such as cutscenes and voice acting to firmly establish the characters' personalities, while increasing amounts of text (both written and spoken aloud) permit the establishment of more complex, concrete stories. There's nothing wrong with this shift (unless you're substantially worse at coming up with compelling characters than your players were, see Final Fantasy series, history of), and some truly great games have been made which give the player no say in the story at all--I like Xenosaga as much as, and probably more than, the next person.

But one structure I really like, and wish there were more of, is a combination of the two: a game where you both control a character and shape who they are and what they do, and participate in the telling of a complex and interesting story. Specifically, one that does this by distinguishing between plot and story, between a sequence of events in linear time and the presentation of those events to the player.

Namely, I'm referring to video games where the story begins very near the end of the plot, and part of the game consists of discovering what happened up to this point. Two games come immediately to mind as doing this well, and both use similar mechanics to accomplish it: Metroid Prime and The Ur-Quan Masters.

In the case of the former, by the time Samus arrives on Tallon IV, virtually the entire plot has already happened: the Chozo encountered, were corrupted by, and then annihilated by Phazon, then years later the Space Pirates began experimenting on it, creating Metroid Prime. All that is left is the final chapter, in which Samus stumbles onto the Space Pirate base, finds her way to Metroid Prime, kills it, and destroys the base. From the perspective of the Space Pirates, it is a story of their hubris and resulting humiliation and destruction by their equivalent to the boogeyman; from Samus' perspective, it's the story of another day's work blowing up Space Pirates and their dangerous biological experiments, albeit one with long-term consequences explored in the sequels. But the plot of both stories is the same--and within the game, which is from Samus' perspective, it's revealed almost entirely through files the player has the option of finding and reading.

In The Ur-Quan Masters, once again by the time the player's ship arrives at Earth virtually the entire plot has already happened, a span of thousands of years of which the game itself comprises at most five to seven (depending on how quickly the player moves and whether they manage to get the time limit extended). It is a rather more text-heavy game than Metroid Prime, as befits an action-RPG as opposed to a first-person shooter, but since the player both picks their dialogue options and is not voiced, there is still significant freedom for the player to shape their character's personality. More importantly, the player is simply dropped into a world in which there are quite a lot of things going on, with no walls and no limits except the fuel capacity and fighting capability of their ship. The number of tasks which have to completed to end the game is quite small compared to the number of tasks available, and there are few restrictions as the to the order in which the player can complete those tasks, meaning the story is very much up to the player to shape. But optional conversations with others can reveal a plot stretching back thousands of years, full of pain and revenge and tragedy (quite astonishing in a game as generally lighthearted and laugh-out-loud funny as this), with more recent events generally easier to discover than more ancient history.

In both games, because relatively little of the plot happens during the story, it is possible for the writer to exert fine control--and thus finely craft--that plot, creating something compelling, interesting, and professional, while the final few beats are provided by the player, creating something immersive, interactive, and personal. It's a fine compromise between the demands of story and the demands of game, and one I'd like to see more of.

*The greatest game of all time, previously titled Star Control II before the owners of the trademark on the name screwed over the owners of the copyright on the code and story. If you have not played it, go get it, it's been open-source for years now. No, really, stop reading right now and go play it. I don't care if you're at work, do it.

9 comments:

  1. Slight correction on Metroid Prime. Retro studios retconned the lore for the PAL and trilogy versions, and now Metroid Prime was inside the meteor from the start, no space pirate involvement. Not really important, but I figure I'd mention it.

    About Star Control, is it really open source? Because I'm seeing it for sale on GOG. Is it some weird copyright shenanigans where the rights were passed around from publisher to publisher, like System Shock 2?

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    1. So, here's the situation:

      Toys for Bob owns the rights to the code and content of Star Control and Star Control II, but they don't own the rights to the name, and Accolade (or whoever owns Accolade's IP--I don't think Accolade exists anymore, do they?) has both the rights to the name and unlimited distribution rights on both those games. In addition, Accolade owns all the rights to Star Control III, which Toys for Bob had no involvement with, but no one cares because it sucks.

      After years of negotiations with Accolade to allow Toys for Bob to remake Star Control II or create a sequel that doesn't suck, Toys for Bob gave up and released the code and all related resources to the open-source community, with the only stipulation being that the game they were open-sourcing totally wasn't Star Control II, it was a completely identical game named The Ur-Quan Masters.

      So basically, there are now two versions floating around, a free, open-source one called The Ur-Quan Masters and a pay one called Star Control II--and it's the free one that has the endorsement of the game's actual creators.

      AFAIK, the original Star Control is only legally available by buying it, but you don't actually need to play it before playing Star Control II. It's pretty much just a crude strategy game that happens to share a combat system with its action-RPG sequel.

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    2. Okay then! *Goes of to download Star Contr- I mean The Ur-Quan Masters*

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  2. Metroid was always great about creating atmosphere and then letting the player build up the narrative and stuff in their mind. Super Metroid is a near-perfect example of telling story through gameplay.

    Then Other M happened. Oh. Ohhhhhh.

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    1. Other M's list of sins is long and deeply upsetting.

      On the other hand, pretty much every awful thing it did was done to a lesser extent by Metroid Fusion, so we really ought to have seen this coming.

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    2. As far as I can tell, there isn't anything innately objectionable in Fusion. I had a positive impression of it after I played it.

      I do remember worrying that the inevitable elaboration on Samus and Adam's backstory would suck, but they exceeded my worst fears. I'm relieved I put off buying Other M long enough to get warned off.

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  3. I found Fusion extremely linear. I also had issues with the way the mission-based gameplay subjected Samus to a masculine authority where in prior games she'd been an independent agent-for-hire.

    I also have a HUGE problem with the use of pinup art as a reward system, effectively declaring that the more badass the player makes Samus, the more subject to the Male Gaze she becomes. Because we can't have a powerful video game heroine who isn't a sex object, that might disrupt the power fantasies of adolescent and adolescent-at-heart boys! (This is why my favorite "Samus takes her armor off" ending is the first Metroid Prime, where she takes off her helmet only and reveals... a basically ordinary-looking young woman.)

    Sure, you can argue that that started with the first game, but in games prior to Zero Mission the "good ending" images of Samus used the same pose, just without the armor. Starting with Zero Mission, however, and even more noticeable in Fusion, Samus wears less clothing and is posed more sexually as the player does better, making the "Samus' body is a reward for good play" connection explicit.

    Combining these threads, a scene where Samus gets nakeder the more she's affected by her (previously nonexistent) PTSD seems inevitable in hindsight.

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  4. Only Some StardustJune 27, 2014 at 3:46 PM

    "a game where you both control a character and shape who they are and what they do, and participate in the telling of a complex and interesting story"

    I take it you like multiple choice rpg games. Although the last few I played your choices didn't actually make much bearing on the plot, mostly being flavor text; even if you take 'evil' choices you still go after the 'bad guy'.

    Will definitely check out that game, thanks.

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    1. Never really got into most of them, actually. Largely because they're rare on consoles and PC gaming costs a fortune.

      I should warn you that UQM is a somewhat odd duck as far as games with multiple paths go--much of what you can change *is* flavor text, and there is only one ending, for which you have to accomplish fixed tasks. However, the order in which you do those tasks is flexible, there's a very high volume of "sidequests," and you can go basically anywhere from very nearly the start of the game, so the number of paths from A to B ends up being very large.

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