[Gamasutra columnist Andrew Vanden Bossche takes a look at how words and narrative work in today's era of video games, with particular reference to skippable cutscenes -- do gamers really hate story?
Whenever I read about someone who says that they always skip cutscenes, I feel a little depressed. I understand why so many gamers are irritated by them; I feel the same way. I sit through them and even enjoy them, but there's no way to ignore that you're playing a video game and just want to keep playing it.
There's a sentiment going around that gamers are some of the people most intent on keeping story out of games. We have bloggers and commenters calling for games to gut out stories their own audience just isn't interested in hearing.
But even when I hear someone say flat out that they don't want stories in their games, I wonder if that's how they actually feel. What, do gamers just hate stories?
Of course not, they don't even hate stories in all of their games. Clearly games like Mass Effect
and Final Fantasy
are followed by people who care about story. So when gamers say they don't want it, what do they really mean?
I think the real problem is more fundamental. Gamers hate stories for the same reason they hate commercials: they're an interruption. No matter how well written or acted a story is, if it's design is off, gamers are going to feel annoyed.
If this issue isn't addressed, then it doesn't even matter how good a game's writing might be. If you're watching a cutscene, you're not playing a game--and when you sit down to play a video game, which one of those did you want to do? So it's no wonder that players feel like story and gameplay are in opposition.
To that end, here are two rules for the use of all words, written or spoken, in a video game:
1. Words must never interrupt the game.
2. Words must never be skippable
I say this knowing that rules are meant to be broken, and having seen these broken to great effect. Right off the bat, I'll add to the first rule that it exempts games like Mass Effect
, or any game in which dialogue trees are a part of gameplay. Gamers are involved with the game at this point, and they know what they're getting into.
The Skipping Fallacy
I realize the second rule sounds a little strange, and actually if you follow the first there should be no need for the second. But I bring it up because I want to emphasize how the games industry is responsible for the gamers crying out against video game stories. Part of the reason is that making it possible to skip text and cut scenes has in no way actually solved the problems those created.
Skippable cut scenes has been the standard for a long time now, but it's actually not much of a solution. Gamers aren't skipping scenes because they hate stories, they're skipping them because they interrupt what they want to be doing (playing a game). So now gamers are less bored, but more confused. They also have not spent the blink of an eye on something that cost an enormous amount of resources to create.
This is not an improvement. Unskippable cutscenes prevent gamers from doing what they want while skippable ones tell players that the story doesn't matter. Both approaches will lead gamers to the conclusion that story in video games is worthless, and in most cases, the enemy of fun and good game design.
This is why I feel the second of the two rules is actually the most important: no words should be skippable because all words should matter. I argued for something a bit more extreme in the case of Mirror's Edge
, and that's because I think that every word in a game needs to really matter to justify being there.
Words and Pacing
, for instance. Braid
has the pleasant philosophy of letting players complete challenges in whatever order they choose, at their own place. This is a philosophy that works very well, and it ensures that everything is nicely tied to together and the player has experienced everything the game has to offer while allowing them to do it however they choose.
Its story, on the other hand, is sort of jammed in at the beginning of every level, and it's completely skippable--which is a reversal from the way the game itself is presented.
The result is that the text just isn't designed with the same sort of obsessive attention to pacing that the rest of the game is. Having to delay my experience of the game to read text is a problem. The problem is that it will always be an interruption.
I play Braid
to play Braid
, so when I stop to read Braid
it is because I feel obligated to or because I'm not interested in playing the video game any more. The reading of Braid
is both separate from the game and consequently, presented as not as important.
There's a much better alternative in the game itself: text that appears during and as a part of the actual game experience. There are the little dinosaurs that say "our princess is in another castle" and the princess herself in the last level. This dialogue plays out a story that unfolds while the game is being played, as a part of the game. There's no separation in the final level between story and game. Even the most cynical gamer couldn't argue that the story got in the way of the experience.
What Braid has a smattering of is the entire approach to dialogue in Loren Schmidt's Star Guard
. In Star Guard
, all of the text in it appears on the background of the level. Braid forces players to stand still to read, but Star Guard
takes advantage of its minimalist backgrounds to write directly on the level.
Ultimately, words need to be part of the game. In fact, every part of a video game should be a video game. It's easier to ditch words than make them work, but it's not worth it to throw out a tool for game design completely. Gamers want stories no matter how much they might protest to the contrary, and words are just too good at delivering that.
I understand there's a lot of feeling now that gamers are some of the strongest opponents to games as art, but that sentiment comes because what we see designed most of the time puts game and story at odds with one another.
Cutscenes make it literally impossible for game to have gameplay and story at the same time. The gamers who feel like this means that they aren't playing a video game are right to think this; the problem is just that they're criticizing the stories themselves, not the way they're presented.
This discussion is necessary not just for games to be more fun, but for games to be more like games. Because games will never be Art if they're just movies or novels we play on a computer. Games won't be recognizes as Art unless they are Art because they are games.
is Art as a game because of how it lets players experience permutations of time, not because it's a metaphor for the atomic bomb. Treating story and gameplay as separate will result in unsatisfied gamers and games that are odds with themselves.
[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames and videogames, and can be reached at [email protected]]