THIS POST was originally posted at 4th Dimented Animation. It is posted here in it's entirety, minus a few custom images.
Back when I was a kid, there was a comedian named Rodney Dangerfield. He did a lot of stand-up and did a number of movies, some where he unfortunately starred in, and others where he had a supporting role (like the irritating jackass in Caddyshack). One of Dangerfield's most familiar lines is "I don't get no respect", and that turns out that the same is true when it comes to story in games (or even film for that matter). I call it "Dangerfield Syndrome"- the habit of people to casually blame the "story" because they may not have enjoyed something about the movie or game.
Since I primarily work in games, I'm going to stick to that mostly, but before I get into that, I want to mention a movie I saw lately: Elysium. I had a talk with a colleague who said to me that he thought the visuals were "ok" but that the story sucked. This confused me- I saw the same movie with my girlfriend the other day, and she was crying numerous times (to save the spoilers for those of you who haven't seen it yet, I won't say why). So that got me to thinking- the studio that green-lit Bloomenkamp's script, Bloomenkamp who wrote the script, and everyone in between, including all the financiers of the film... how did these people not see that the story sucked? How did they not know it was some stupid nonsense that the audience would never buy in to? How could they be THAT WRONG? And also, why is it that Hollywood keeps making all these shitty stories?
Or is it that story is the Rodney Dangerfield of entertainment? A catch-all that people will use to justify their dislike of something or to try to make themselves seem intellectuals by using grandiose, overarching statements to inflate their sense of self-worth and convince others of it?
If you've been reading this blog long enough, I think you already can see where this is going...
One can argue that a film is essentially a story told through visual and auditory means and thus it is essentially a passive exercise. The plot and the script are often the basis for the film, upon which a Director and Producer are hired to and the movie experience begins to take shape. For those of you who are interested in script writing and learning more about it, John August and Craig Mazin do a great podcast called Scriptnotes. There's one great episode where they discuss this idea that somehow gets out that any old script gets made, and that's it's all just crap that the studios want to put out. The two writers discuss that the movies you're seeing on the big screen represent the best scripts that have been received. This doesn't mean that Transformers was as good a Gosford Park, it just means that for the business expectation of the film, the script they got was felt to be good enough to shoot and to spend millions of dollars on. No studio is going into a financial adventure like that saying "let's find the biggest piece of shit script we can and blow a hell of a lot of money on it". So...if that's true (and I'll have to believe Craig and John since they have a hell of a lot more experience in the film industry than I do), then why is it that I hear people complaining about how "the story sucked" in a film all the time?
Or maybe it's just the type of people I am surrounded by- perhaps your everyday person doesn't do this kind of stuff all the time...
So let's look at games. We've established that a film is arguably a passive experience (except for Rocky Horror perhaps), but what about a videogame? By the nature of things, a videogame is a non-passive event- you "play" something and interact with the program. Some games have entirely CG cutscenes, some in-game cutscenes, and still others no cutscenes at all (but still events that happen to you to move the story forward), but a large portion of the product isn't in those things- it's in the gameplay itself.
Let's take a look at a few examples. First, we have Dishonored.
The story of Dishonored is told over numerous simple, single POV "in-game "cutscenes". The primary interest in the game is not the performance of the characters, but the overall life of the world and your ability to approach the tasks they give you in numerous different ways. Meanwhile, the world itself is fleshed out through the discussions AI characters have with each other and the books that you pick up along the way. The "story" of Dishonored is basically you are a body guard to the Empress, she gets killed, and you are framed for it. You end up in prison, escape prison with the help of a rebel group, meet a "mentor" who gives you special powers, and begin to solve the "coup" problem by murdering the political targets who are in your way. Essentially what this says is that "We are going to give you a reason why you are cool from the start, a mechanic to level up and get cooler, and a framework in which you get to assassinate people by making up the way you want to go about doing it". THAT'S THE GAME. There's a "plague" that's causing problems, that you really (at least at first) don't seem to give two shits about. Now, Is it there because it needed to be there for the story or did a game designer say "I want zombies in this game as enemies and they should move fast and be scary" and then someone worked around that? Did the writer say "the plague came from rats" or did a game designer say "in our steampunk world, I want to have rats and you can use them to get to secret places by playing as the rat"?
The only way to know that for sure would be to debrief the game designers and writers on the project, but the point here is that unlike a movie, the concepts and ideas for the story of a game often come from numerous different places, including how the audience is going to interact with the product and how much "fun" that interaction is. In fact, a game's story can change, based upon what happens within the game's design. Game writers may have to find ways to incorporate level design objectives into a coherent narrative so that you don't have what appears to be random "go here, do that because I said so" gameplay.
In addition to this, to extend gameplay times, designers often add "collectibles". These can range anywhere from coins, food, feathers (Assassin's Creed and Dishonored) to books, downloads of "data" that could be gameplay or story related, and anything in-between. From a story perspective, that's potentially a lot of stuff to work in- in Crysis 3, for instance, we had a lot of download files that helped to flesh out our world and give some background info to new players and returning players alike. Think about your average movie- how often to you get MORE story than what is actually on the screen? In a game, this is often promoted, so when someone says the "story sucked", are they talking about THOSE stories as well? Are they taking into account the ENTIRE experience of the game- the main quest line with the unavoidable scenes and the supporting data or stories? If not, is it fair to say "the story sucked" for a game without having the whole picture? And would your opinion change of the story of a game if you DID experience all the "tertiary elements"?
A game writer will often get great praise lauded upon them or great anger based upon the perception that their writing is the only thing that "made the story suck". But from just our little examples above, we can how game design, level design, production, and writing can all combine together to make a result. Would you expect that level and game design do away with something in the game they think would be fun just because a writer says it doesn't fit and confuses the story? Probably not. You'd probably be expecting that writer to "figure it out" or "make it fit". But is that fair? What if the overall story is about pink ponies and fairies and you, as a designer, want to put giant, killer robots in there? Should the story guys just go "sure, we'll traumatize 6 year old girls to get your Death Monster Chainsaw Robot in"?
Let's take another example from Crysis 3- the Dam explosion. When we developed C3, the idea had been to "let the team design it", so we had all these sub-groups that were coming up with ideas. We also had concepts being done by Art, and team groups that were trying to figure out what cool "set pieces" they could have in their levels. One of them was the Dam in the Canyon level. The gameplay goal was originally to go blow up the damn, then go to the base at the end and blow that up as well because that's where it was transmitting energy from. But why? Why am I going to these two places to blow them up? Why can't I go to the base first? The designer of the level told me that the objectives were always that you needed to blow the Dam up to destroy the base defenses. Sounds good, right?
Now let's think about Elysium for a moment and one of the problems someone complained to me about- "why didn't they have their own defense system?". The same would ring true here- why would you be powering all your defenses off a hydrodam kilometers away? One that is far less protected than your base, especially in the case that you have built everything to your exact specifications inside the Dome in the first place? I mean, it's not like they have to get power from Three Mile Island- they are making their own and transmitting it around the world. From a game perspective, that sounded cool- blowing stuff up- but from a "story" perspective, we needed to fold that into the overarching "hunter" theme of the level.
So we took those moments, and the concept of "Prophet as the Hunter" that C3 was going for and said "maybe here's something really dangerous in that base that they are using to project that energy. Something that they have control over, but that the control of that comes from a redundant system being powered by the dam (that's why their defenses are run off of it instead of being within a secure location at the base)? If there's "the God Monster" down there that they are leeching power from, they certainly wouldn't want to be running their defense systems on the same grid, right?"
So the whole "story" of that level revolves around essentially introducing you to "friendlies" that would be with you (every Crysis game had them- C1 had nanosuits and seamen; C2 had Marines) and give them a "story face", give you a plot reason why you go to the dam first, and then a plot reason why you have to fight around in the base. That's it. "Go blow that up, then Go blow that up" is what is happening in the level, to which story worked to create a narrative that tied in with the "Become the Hunter" theme.
Did you like the level (personally it was one of my favorites)? If so, does the credit for the coolness of the level go to the story guys? The level designer? The Cinematic guys that made the scenes? The level art? If you didn't enjoy the level, did the story "suck"? And if so, Why?
See, "Story" is a much more complicated thing than most people give it credit for. It is that thing that never gets "respect"- it's almost always shit upon somehow by people who blindly barf out myopic statements that perhaps they once read in Robert McKee without comprehending it. Everyone seems to be able to spout out the catch-phrase of "the story sucked", but how many people really understand what they are saying? How many of them are responding to the visuals, editing, pacing, acting, audio, music or game play objectives and lumping that together as "story"? And is it actually fair to do that?
In closing, I'd like to ask everyone to think before you spout out "the story sucked" in either a film or game. Understand what you didn't like ("I didn't feel connected to the characters" or "I don't like Alien Invasion movies") and mention THAT instead. As a game and film society, we need to avoid the Dangerfield Syndrome and find ways to express our likes and dislikes in mature and helpful fashions so that perhaps we CAN affect change and that, next time, the story won't "suck".