Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Stortelling in games: likes/dislikes

I'm going to take a break from Castle Conflict related stuff to talk a bit more about storytelling in games, something that I had hoped to have more time to do but haven't in quite some time.

Specifically, I am going to look at two games, one that I think did storytelling amazingly well, and one that demonstrates how, in some way, story and related paraphernalia can hinder gameplay as much as help.

The first game I want to talk about is HalfLife 2. As far as stories go, the story here is actually not too far from the fare of most video games. There is some evil force that threatens to overtake the human race, and you are set against it to destroy it. It is a bit more interesting than just that; the human race itself seems out to get you, with police men wearing what looks like gas masks out to get you at every turn. But there are people on your side to, and they refer to you as "the free man" and even fight alongside you during gameplay.

Okay, so the story is, really, decent at best. But the actual telling of the story in Half Life is brilliant. First of all, nothing is forced on you, and I think this is a very important point about what Half Life did successfully. Yes, the game is linear; no, there aren't really any branches in the story; and yet, I felt more a part of the story in Half Life 2 than I did in games like Tales of Symphonia, where the game is -about- the story, has story scenes all the time, and allows me to make choices that effect the story. Why? Because, when story stuff was going on, I could run around, jump on things, shoot people, ignore it entirely, pay complete attention to it. In short, I was still playing the game while the story was going on, so it was still me who was experiencing the story. It quickly became something I appreciated a lot about the game.

The other aspect was the lack of detail. As you play the game, there is no moment where someone comes up to you and says, "Okay, this is what is going on." There are some light explanations here and there, but really, you're never really told specifically what the Citadel is. who "our Benefactors" really are, or how they came to be here. (note: I have never played the original Half Life, which I am sure explains some of this). The player is forced to infer what is going on based on the snippets he does here; the situation that people are living in, and the environment around him. As a storytelling technique, this makes the game much more enjoyable. And for those who don't like story, and just want to shoot things with the Gravity Gun, they can outright ignore it.

The next game is actually a series; specifically, Fire Emblem. Fire Emblem is pretty successful in the tactical RPG realm, having been releasing games since the SNES days. But there is one specific detail about it that bothers me, which I will get to in a moment.

One discussion I remember having when I was taking Game Design courses was about consequences. About how, in many games, there were no consequences to the players' actions in a lot of games. The teacher talked about how he felt that consequences could be used to greater effect in a lot of games.

I think one thing to remember with games, even games that are heavily based on storytelling, is that they are still games. They are supposed to be fun. On the one hand, I'm a fan of the idea of consequences, and I think if implemented well, they can add a lot of depth and strategy to your game.

In Fire Emblem, they added consequences. If one of your character dies in the midst of battle, he dies forever. This might not be so bad, if there weren't a lot of weaker units (healers/mages) that suddenly seem much more useless, because you never want them close enough to the front line to be used effectively. If you do this, they will be killed. And while, in this type of games, you generally don't want your units killed, in Fire Emblem having them killed basically forces you to restart the battle or move forward for the rest of the game with a gimped army. Either option kind of sucks. And unfortunately, it is easy to have a healer off by a single square, and then have an enemy unit, out of the blue, attack it an kill it in a single hit. While this does promote awareness of careful planning, which are strong aspects of this type of game. I feel that it nonetheless is a bit too harsh.

For this specific case, I think Rondo of Swords found a much better mid ground. There is still punishment if your unit dies in battle, but instead, it's just weaker in the following fight while it recovers. A much more balanced, enjoyable feature.


Clint said...

(note: I have never played the original Half Life, which I am sure explains some of this

hell no it doesn't. :P It's just as confusing in half life 1. The fans pretty much guessed most of the storyline between 1 and 2. that's Valve's whole thing is to create an atmosphere. They use certain visual cues and use the scene itself to set a story.

It's really awesome to do some of the director commentary on HL2 and etc and they go through all of the tricks they use and some of them are amazing and subtle. like you said, they don't spoonfeed you the story, but it's interesting how they leave it entirely open for speculation. You can find some of the director commentary on youtube.

I prefer a dynamic way of storytelling, it's much better than being treated to 8924792 paragraphs and flashy cutscenes; it's just a major zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz to me

I'm not sure how that fire emblem part really has much to do with story. You could've said how you need certain characters to stand by each other in order to trigger certain conversations, but permanent death doesn't really affect the storyline much. (besides everyone just reloads when someone dies anyway)

Stephen (The Gazzardian) said...

Clint: the point with Fire Emblem is I guess not quite as strictly story related, but to me it feels like something that was chosen for flavour (which is related to story) reasons as opposed to gameplay reasons, and I feel that the gameplay suffered as a result, is ultimately what I'm getting at.