My friend Ben Fritz, who writes for Variety.com's videogame blog The Cut Scene [where a version of this essay also ran], had an interesting bone to pick recently with Grand Theft Auto IV. In an essay titled "Narrative sophistication vs. open world," he mentioned the ever-present problem in these sandbox games when it comes to balancing a confined story with the fact that you can literally do just about anything:
"How can players seriously believe Niko’s on a date when his girlfriend doesn’t mind that he’s carrying a knife, walking her through a 5-foot-deep pond and getting in numerous car accidents? Why can a distinctive-looking illegal immigrant commit hundreds of carjackings and nobody seems to care?"
Basically, Ben is bothered by the fact that while you can do anything in the open world environment, the story actually operates on a very set track, going from plot point to plot point as if no one in Liberty City had any idea that you just spent the last two hours initiating a five-star police chase that culminated in your plunging a car off a bridge and then swimming back to a safe house.
In the context of an increasingly sophisticated open world where Liberty City actually feels like a living and breathing universe, the game's rigid narrative structure is becoming a bit, well... tired. But I don't mind the fact that GTA's gameplay sometimes bounces up against the narrative. The question I want to explore is this: Why does my gameplay have to be constantly interrupted by this reductive thing called a story?
Story As Accessory
Before we begin, let's call a spade a spade here. It's been a few weeks, we've all had a little perspective, and I think it's fair to admit that the game press may have jumped the gun a bit on their exuberance for Grand Theft Auto IV's storyline. Simon Parkin, in his Chewing Pixels column for GameSetWatch, was even bold enough to come clean about his hyperbole. It's not, as IGN amazingly called it, 'Oscar-caliber.'
The adventure of Niko Bellic, complete with its comic assortment of ethnic cliches, is pretty much on par with the rest of the franchise's self-conscious worship of movie archetypes and genre tropes. And there's nothing wrong with that. Rockstar has made clear that's all they've ever wanted to do, and they've done a damn fine job at that (although I do miss some of that charming humor from Vice City and San Andreas).
The problem here is not the quality of the story, but the manner in which it is incorporated into the gameplay. After skipping over countless cut scenes so I could get to the action, I slowly began to regard plot in GTA IV as being something akin to the Clinton marriage: why do they bother with the charade? Is there anyone in this country who honestly thinks these two people still sleep in the same bed?
After all the incredible advances in their game engine, why does Rockstar insist on making its story an accessory -- a needless, comparatively inferior element? More to the point, how did narrative become such a side bar to the real point of gaming, i.e. our ability to play out our deepest fantasies in a virtual world?
The Star Wars Arcade Days
In Jesper Juul's July 2001 essay "Games Telling Stories?," he discusses Atari's 1983 arcade version of Star Wars, which utilized moving polygons in a flight simulator engine to re-create the famous third act of the movie:
"The primary thing that encourages the player to connect game and movie is the title Star Wars on the machine and on the screen. If we imagine the title removed from the game, the connection would not be at all obvious. It would be a game where one should hit an "exhaust port" (or simply a square), and the player could note a similarity with a scene in Star Wars, but you would not be able to reconstruct the events in the movie from the game. The prehistory is missing, the rest of the movie, all personal relations."
In other words, he's saying that in the early days of limited graphics and reduced processing power, games had to resort to external packaging to inform the user as to what kind of world the narrative was taking place in.
Strip away those accessories - the words Star Wars on the outside of the console, the X-Wing-like cockpit, Obi Wan's voice playing on the speakers behind us - and all you have is an abstract shooter involving lines and polygons. It could just as easily have been a game version of The Last Starfighter or even Top Gun.
Story was simply an excuse to charge the gameplay with more meaning.
GTA IV & Portal
But here we are today, in the era of the Playstation 3, and clearly we've got enough processing power to handle a firm integration of narrative and gameplay. Story must exist on a much more sophisticated level, right? Not as much as you'd think.
As many developers can attest, many games are re-appropriated into different titles several years into the development cycle, simply by altering the story to suit another brand. It happens way more than we'd like to admit. It's an unfortunate by-product of corporate economics, but also an indication of just how far we still have to go as an industry when it comes to creating games with sophisticated narratives, i.e. non-disposable narratives that couldn't simply be stripped and re-used elsewhere without ruining the inherent game.
In the field of architecture, this was a principle debate during the emergence of the Modern movement. Classical architects were too often content to simply emulate archetypal forms in the facades of their buildings - forms which brought no organic function to the rest of the structure. The key to the maturation of architecture, the Modernists believed, was to created works of art where form and function - or story and gameplay, in this analogy - were irrevocably and organically linked.
To our credit, there have been a few games that have managed to accomplish this in recent days. Portal is the first that comes to mind. Without a single cut scene, or even so much as a reference to some kind of back-story, it manages to transport us into the virtual space of its plot, allowing us to deduce our own way through its elaborate puzzles and come to our own conclusions about the conspiracy that is amiss.
We don't need Niko's idiot cousin to tell us we're about to be betrayed --- in Portal, we actually act out the story as part of the gameplay. The same goes for Ico, which does in fact utilize cut scenes from time to time, and yet they are brief, to the point, and earned by the narrative. After navigating through the mysterious castle for several hours, we're starved for information, dying to hear what is going on. The cut scenes play into this desire, giving us what we want and allowing us to feel that we've fulfilled it through our achievement in the gameplay.
But for the most part, we as an industry are stuck in the same trap that GTA exemplifies. We value narratives in games, we understand their purpose and their necessity, and yet we have no idea how to parse them effectively into the game's interactive structure. As technology gets better, the weaknesses of poor story integration are more exposed.
Even in GTA IV, possibly the pinnacle of mainstream gaming to this day, we are still very much stuck back in the time of the Star Wars arcade game, playing through an awesome experience while having our story force-fed to us via external packaging.
And to those who would complain, "Yes, but you can skip through the story if you don't want to see it," that's exactly my point. No one would say the same thing about the Sistine Chapel: "Yes, but you can skip through that lame entrance portico." It's all part of a complete work of art. To say that one part is lesser diminishes the value of the whole.
Stop Writing Stories
So how do we get out of this trap? For starters, more story is not the answer. There are games (non-RPG games, mind you) that believe turning inwards and building out an infinitely large plot thread somehow makes the narrative more effective. In reality, it's just more interference.
Even better story is not the answer. That's been a symptom recently too - bringing on high end screenwriters to punch up dialogue, as if that had anything to do with the game's playability. An "Oscar-caliber" plot is still going to be skipped over if it doesn't augment gameplay.
As a screenwriter, let me be the first to state that I don't play games because I'm looking for clever narrative. I play them because I'm looking to inhabit another world. One where I can forge my own story, or at least believe I'm forging it via a cleverly-immersive narrative, and then laugh or cry along with its results.
And while this opinion has been stated before by other (probably better) game writers, I want to repeat that the best experience I've had writing for games has been when I'm brought on so early in the process that the writer is a genuine member of the team, not just a work for hire.
We need to stop thinking about story as a device to make us care about the gameplay (it doesn't), and start thinking about the gameplay as the narrative itself (thus, making us care). Now that the technology has finally reached a breaking point, a place where we can genuinely craft sophisticated worlds, we have to understand that plot is not forced upon those worlds artificially, but grown from our interactions within their environments.
Story design needs to be less checkpoint-focused and more focused on implementing a meta structure that makes us believe we are shaping events with our choices, even if these choices have already been made for us.
The "story on rails" has now been exposed. Game engines are strong enough that we can see the seams in the narrative fabric. It's no longer acceptable that we can take our girlfriend on a date and never once have her mention the fact that we're carrying a missile launcher by our side. We need to believe our actions have consequences within the virtual universe and that the experiences we are living are wholly unique, even if they aren't.
And yes, this argument doesn't just apply to open world games. Even traditional narratives-on-wheels have had the bar raised. Call of Duty 4 has effectively shown that with a certain amount of inventiveness (dying of nuclear radiation? Flashback sequences from the POV of other characters?), games can actually defy the predictability and inevitability of basic story blueprints.
It just takes some thought and a little bit of willingness to go off the beaten path. Because for what it's worth, the game industry is not the interactive little brother of cinema. Ask any overzealous industry pundit (I won't name names) and they'll give you a thousand reasons why gaming is a superior art form.
And yet despite our arrogance, we still act like we're just the doting charity case, clumsily marrying sophisticated gameplay with narratives that better belong somewhere else. This industry is better than that. We need to stretch further.
I say stop writing high-minded stories. Start writing games. And let the stories grow from them.