“Sound familiar?” Richard Rouse (Midway Games) asked, opening the afternoon game design session “Stories Best Played: Deconstructing the Best Interactive Storytelling” with quotes including “stories are irrelevant to games” and “stories in games can’t compete with other mediums.” He then offered his own “contrarian thesis,” that the best game storytelling can stand up to the storytelling in any other medium.
To attempt to support his point, he invited Marc Laidlaw (Valve Software) Steve Meretzky (Blue Fang) and Ken Rolston (Big Huge Games) to nominate and play a selection of eight games that they considered the best at storytelling, and debate them in front of the audience.
Steve Meretsky began by introducing his first pick, Lucasfilm Games’ Loom, developed by Brian Moriarty. “One of the inspirations was to model the music of the game after Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and despite EGA graphics and simplistic sound, the game still looks and sounds particularly good,” he said, before establishing that one of Moriarty’s ideas was to provide an audio drama establishing the story before people even began to play the game.
“Moriary created a rich fantasy world, but unlike the Tolkien which we usually see, it doesn’t follow the usual fantasy conventions and raises the genre more to the level of myth.,” Moriarty enthused. “Using the audio drama established very rich characters in the player’s mind so when they see the tiny characters made up of a small amount of pixels, they see the character, not the pixels.
Meretzky concluded, “he didn’t use the lemons to make lemonade: he used them to make a nectar of the gods.”
In discussion, Ken Rolston didn’t agree: “The pacing of the experience so badly damaged the pacing of the story that I wasn’t able to enjoy it”.
Thief: Deadly Shadows
Marc Laidlaw’s pick, he argued that one could not “overstate the importance of the writing in this game.”
“The thing that they did the best was an amazing job on the atmosphere,” he said, but “another thing they did especially well at the time was understanding the limitation of the cut scenes [at the time] and used silhouettes with limited animation.”
Rolston again couldn’t agree, but in (at least) a more positive way: “I was sucked into the gameplay: I didn’t pay any attention to the story. I was so immediately transported from a common state of mind for winning: to kill, that I was doing something new by knocking people out and hiding their bodies that I paid no attention.”
Rouse found the title “very hard to return to from a visual stand point. It’s supposed to be grounded in reality but it looks like a quake level.”
Planescape Torment was Ken Rolston’s pick, and he introduced it’s plot humourously: “You are THE NAMELESS ONE, I’m saying it like that so you know it’s all capital letters.”
“This is a long game, whatever it’s virtues are,” he continued, “RPGS are the epics or the novels of gaming. But this a game where you can collect your own intestines -- you can collect body parts and use them as weapons -- they even have stuff written on them! A weapon that’s your own body part that has exposition on it! It’s delicious!”
He concluded, “we will never see it’s like again -- it’s like Moby Dick, you’ve done it once, you don’t need it again. It’s like Chinese literature … certainly in terms of the quality of the commentary on it -- it enriches and becomes part of it.”
Rouse enjoyed the explorable text aspect of it: “I certainly didn’t finish it but I liked how it’s really quite funny, even with some really serious subject matter,” while Laidlaw felt it “joins the racks of great works of literature, like the Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina that I will never finish.”
Rouse’ first pick, Bioshock, used “a lot of techniques that have been done before,” but he found it a “uniquely compelling story. The mise en scene really created a distinct sense of place.”
Meretzky felt that Bioshock “really illustrated what is a key conundrum if you’re trying to tell a story in a game,”: that the story pushed him forward, but as he dislikes FPS titles, the gameplay held him back.”
Yet again Rolston ignored the story: “I was totally absorbed by the setting, but the characters I just ignored. I knew I aimed to escape, so I just spent my time looking for doors.”
The Chronicles of Riddick: A Fool’s Errand
The Fools Errand, Meresky’s second pick, he felt that even 20 years later, the few hours he spent organising the “sun map” in the end game was “some of the most fun hours of gaming he had ever had,” requiring him to pour over the story of the game to unravel the puzzle.
Rolston’s surprising second pick was The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, a game that by his very own admission used conventions he had “always sneered at,”: opening with a flashback, playable dream sequences, but felt that it deserved study as a title with a true “performer” in the form of Vin Diesel’s Riddick.
Meretsky couldn’t have had a more different experience: “I didn’t want to spend time with him and I certainly didn’t want to be him, he quipped.”
The ICOnic Phoenix Wright
Similarly surprising, Laidlaw announced that he was a “huge fan” of the Phoenix Wright series and its writers, noting that the “huge emphasis” on plot twists as characterisation was part of what made the characters “serve as a point where the gameplay and narrative intersect. Mystery is one of the characters.”
Meretzky objected (though sadly not by jumping into the air and screaming “Objection!” an urge the audience also managed to withhold): “As a player I didn’t have enough input, but I did find the story compelling enough to keep me going.”
Finally, Rouse picked what many people consider to be one of the most emotional games of all time: ICO. “there’s almost no dialogue in the game at all, but the emotional connection between the characters is a key gameplay mechanic. They pay it off brilliantly at the end of the game,” he said, “you spend so long grabbing her after she nearly misses leaps, feeling it through the controller rumble, and then at the end of the game she grabs you. It really is a stunning moment.”
“The purity of the design of the game was amazing,” Laidlaw agreed, “to design a game so that the rumble of the controller was part of the emotional impact.”
Even Meretzky agreed: “this was inarguably the on that best told its story as a game.”
Returning to the “contrarian thesis” that began the talk, the conclusion was that games had not yet reached that point, but that, at least according to Meretzky, the games that they looked at “showed that promise existed.”