Saturday, January 14, 2012

On Interactive Storytelling

Having recently played Metroid: Other M (and being rather disappointed with it), I felt a yearning to return to the brilliance of the Prime trilogy. So I dusted off my Echoes disc and started a new game. The differences between Other M and Prime are numerous, but one major thing I picked up on right away was how the two games go about telling their respective stories.

Other M tells its story with long, elaborate cutscenes, which serve for Samus to narrate all of the exposition and to describe the finer nuances of the plot. We watch and listen as the game tells us its story. Prime tells its story mostly by having the player scan things in the environment and read the subsequent scan results. Prime asks us to be more involved in its storytelling.

Naturally, I prefer the style used in Prime. That's not to say that cutscenes are inherently bad, but relying too heavily on them ruins the interactivity that you're supposed to get from video games. I could use this as a platform solely to bash Other M, but I want to make a broader point about how games can tell better stories. In the full article, I also use examples from The Elder Scrolls and Portal, and how they use NPCs and the environment to tell their stories, respectively.

Cutscenes can be an essential tool for depicting precise actions that would be too difficult to animate in ordinary gameplay, while also allowing for more dramatic and cinematic camera angles. But one of the main problems with cutscenes is that they take the player's hands off the controls, turning us into passive recipients of information and narrative. Sometimes it's absolutely necessary, but we play video games for the gameplay; if we just wanted cutscenes, we would watch a movie instead.

Depiction of a long-winded cutscene in Other M.

A big reason why I failed to make any kind of emotional connection to Other M is the fact that literally all of its story happens during cutscenes. It's just harder for me to care about things when I have no control over anything. Besides that, the cutscenes kept breaking my immersion. During ordinary gameplay, it's all about me, the player. I'm the one who's defeating Ridley and saving Anthony, I'm the one investigating the suspicious activity in Sector 2. And then it shifts to a cutscene, and suddenly I'm out of the picture. It's no longer me in that cutscene, it's her, Samus.

That was never a problem in Prime. There were still cutscenes from time to time, but they didn't pull you out of the experience. Samus was still "you" in the cutscenes, in large part because she remained silent, assessing the situation. She's not pushing buttons, talking to people, or fighting a giant space bat. While we, as players, sit and witness what unfolds, she does the same thing, maintaining the mental continuity between the player and the character on-screen.

The other engaging thing about Prime is that it doesn't just come out and tell us the story. Most of it is hidden in glyphs and artifacts that you have to scan, and even then you're only getting a small piece to a larger puzzle. You land on a mysterious planet and see a bunch of dead federation soldiers. Instead of a cutscene where Samus walks around inspecting everything and asking the obvious questions that everyone is thinking, you stay in control and investigate the scene yourself. Scanning their corpses gives you clues on how they died, and you fill the blanks in yourself.

The scanning system makes you feel more involved in the world and the story than just watching a cutscene. It gives you things to do while the game tells you its story, and it makes the story more rewarding and satisfying because you're doing the work to get it. You can go through Metroid Prime without experiencing the real story at all, if you choose not to scan things or if you just don't explore enough. And that makes it fun, cause you're the one making the story happen instead of it being forced down your throat.

The other thing that's often said about stories is "show, don't tell." In literature, this means that if a character is feeling frustrated, you don't just write "Fishy Joe felt frustrated," you convey frustration to the reader through Fishy Joe's behavior. It's a similar idea in video games, but due to the differences between the two media, "showing" is a little bit different. For this example, I'll be contrasting Oblivion (and Bethesda, in general) with Portal (and Valve, in general).

The Elder Scrolls tends to suffer a lot from "telling." A lot of the story in a typical TES game comes from NPCs who literally tell you the story in conversations. They lock on to you and then dump a ton of expository dialogue that explains what's been happening and what you're going to do about it. It's much like when games start out with a long text intro that explains everything, except it happens throughout the whole game. And if you want to know any of the lore, then be prepared to read entire libraries to get it.

This approach isn't necessarily bad, especially when you consider it's been kind of the standard for the last 20 (or more) years; a narrator explains the backstory, and characters tell you the ongoing story. But with certain innovators out there, this style of storytelling is beginning to feel like an archaic relic of the past, and it's certainly not a very creative approach. It's still a functional way to tell a story that, for the most part, doesn't interfere with a game's enjoyability, but some games have done a better job of "showing" their story.

The story in Portal 2, for example, isn't explicitly told to us. Except for occasional lines from Wheatley and GLaDOS, it's all conveyed through the environment. You start out in the "extended relaxation chamber" and go through the tutorial before going back to sleep. The next time you wake up, the room has fallen into disarray; things have been knocked over, there's a deep body-shaped depression in the mattress you were sleeping on, most of the lights don't turn on, the automatic voice-over glitches out. 

The room is obviously much different than it was the last time you were awake, but the game doesn't call attention to all of these details. It's a subtle design element that clues you in to the fact that a lot of time has passed, and that the Aperture testing facility is having major technical difficulties. (Most likely because of your actions in the first Portal.)

In the original Portal, you might have suspected that GLaDOS' intentions weren't entirely benevolent, but that detail was also cleverly conveyed when you started accidentally stumbling into the interior areas of the testing chambers. You see evidence that someone has been living inside the walls; a bed made out of cardboard boxes, scrap cans of beans and milk strewn about the place, and graffiti scribbled on the walls. The most telling bit, "the cake is a lie," clues you in to the fact that something more sinister may be going on, without explicitly telling you.

If it's not clear already, I prefer the style of storytelling in Prime and Portal (as compared to Other M and The Elder Scrolls) because the stories are told in a more active manner. Not only is the player more involved in the story (rather than just being a passive recipient to it), but you end up using your own brain a bit more to fill in the blanks and to process everything along the way. It connects you to the plot (and thus the game) more when it involves your own action and thought.

1 comment:

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