Monday, February 22, 2010

Storytelling in Games - Planescape: Torment

Continuing my topic from last time on games that have had the best stories, it's time to discuss the oft-mentioned Planescape: Torment.

Let's get this out of the way at the start - Planescape: Torment is probably the best written video game ever made. It's flat out one of the best written stories I've ever had the pleasure of reading. It takes a very simple and overused video game cliche (resurrecting when you die), and turns it into an epic tale of personal discovery and deep philosophical questions. It has incredible character development, dialogue, plot twists, and fascinating revelation after revelation. It is a finely crafted story that grabs your attention from start to finish, and we need to shut up about it.

Allow me to reiterate that I love this game, it's one of my favorite of all time. However it exists within a very specific time-frame in video game history, and we can never duplicate the method of storytelling it used. It would not work in today's market. This was during what I like to call the 'isometric era' of PC gaming.

This era encompasses many genres and hundreds of games. For those of you who may have missed this period, isometric describes the style of graphical presentation or 'viewpoint' that these games used - a camera raised above the playing field that views the area at a 120 degree angle.

The 'isometric era' spanned from about 1997 with the release of Diablo and Fallout until around the year 200o with Diablo 2 and The Sims being the last truly successful isometric games. But this type of gaming was defined by more than just perspective. There was a subset of games that existed in both the world of isometric gaming and the world (and rules) of Dungeons and Dragons. Most of these games were created by Black Isle Studios, Interplay, and BioWare. The Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, and Icewind Dale, among others.

These are very distinctly D&D style games, whether we knew it at the time we were playing them. And I don't just mean that they're related to a campaign setting. Each of these games is written as if they were a D&D pen and paper game.

In storytelling terms, this means that all of these games are incredibly wordy. This is especially true of Planescape: Torment. The graphical representation of what is actually going on in P:T is very minimal. You usually only get the basic layout of the room in front of you, and a vague paper-doll shape of the characters on screen. Almost all of the settings, environments, characters, and details are described via written text. This is the same kind of storytelling that would take place in a pen and paper D&D campaign.

You see, the way that stories are told in video games has evolved. The D&D Campaign style worked in the isometric era, due to the technical limitations. Nobody minded reading all that wonderfully written text, because it made the game world rich and exciting.

But picture Planescape: Torment on today's systems. It wouldn't work. All of that lovely descriptive text would have to be removed and replaced with visuals. Imagine all that perfect dialogue painfully acted out by today's voice actors. It would make the game approximately 100 hours of just watching things happen. You see, it worked in written form because it takes us much less time to read and visualize things than it does to actually show them happening. This is why when books are made into movies they have to cut out a lot of the text. Remaking Planescape: Torment would be like making a movie version of Lord of the Rings. It might be good, sure, but the developer would have to butcher the original material in order to get it to work.

Does this mean I think we reached the peak of interactive storytelling with Planescape: Torment? Of course not! The isometric era was a trend with a focus on telling a story through text, and that trend died out. We now have to really work within the visual story-telling world, which is much closer to a movie than a book. Currently, the trend for storytelling in gaming is dominated by dialogue trees, choices, and BioWare.

But that's a story for another time. In fact, next I plan on discussing games of that nature and why we need not be shackled by 'choice-based' stories and choose-your-own-adventure games.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Storytelling in Games - Bioshock and the Silent Protagonist

Recently while browsing the fine forums over at The Escapist, I came across a thread which caught my eye. It's a pretty typical "what's your favorite" topic, except this time it was about which game had the best "storyline".

This may be strange, but the thing that first got me really exciting about game development was the potential for storytelling. In my developing years I completely ate up games like Final Fantasy 6, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger (okay pretty much the entire Squaresoft library). Games have a unique place in the world of modern storytelling. They're interactive, visually engaging, exist in almost every genre, and can invest dozens of hours in order to tell a complete story. The problem is that it's almost impossible to balance gameplay and storytelling and not sacrifice one in favor of the other. We're still making games here, after all - not just interactive movies.

Anyway, back to the games with the best storyline according to the users of The Escapist. A lot of common names showed up, and while it's hardly a large sample group it does make for an interesting cross-section of gamers and their opinions on storytelling in games. So for the next few days I'd like to explore my own thoughts on the games that were mentioned the most as having 'the best storyline in gaming'.

First up we have...

This was probably the most frequently mentioned game, or maybe it just seemed that way to me because I was surprised every time I saw it. (It also likely has a lot to do with Bioshock 2 coming out today).

It's not that I don't think Bioshock presents a good setting with an interesting story, it just doesn't strike me as anything particularly compelling or deep. It was basically a very simplified (and honestly much more interesting) retelling of Atlas Shrugged. Most of the game's storytelling was almost entirely atmospheric, or in the very least completely passive. It seemed to me that Bioshock was less about telling a story and more about putting the player in an interesting situation to see how they react.

But the main reason I never really thought that Bioshock had a great story was due to one thing I think can ruin the story and writing of any game: the silent protagonist. I have never seen a game where this made any sense. You're asking us to accept that the main character in the story you're trying to tell has absolutely nothing to say about his situation, and that no one around him notices that he's never said a word. Imagine writing a movie script with no lines of dialogue for the hero, or a book where the main character is a mute. This is almost universally unique to video games. Developers of silent protagonist games seem to believe that giving the player character a voice, personality, and dialogue would ruin the immersion.

Poppycock, I say!

Immersion is a funny thing, and game designers who write in silent protagonists seem to have an idea that it means that the player must feel that he IS the player character. This is simply not possible to accomplish. There is no way that a game designer can understand or predict who I am, how I will react to certain situations, or all the things I would do or say if I were in the situation of the protagonist. Until direct, force-feedback, fully immersed, holodeck-type gameplay is invented we will always just be piloting a paper doll by remote control. Immersion is best achieved when I feel like the fate of the paper doll is meaningful.

When I read a good book with a good main character, I empathize with his problems. I want him to succeed. I follow each page closely in the hopes that the protagonist will make the correct choices that will help him solve his problems. I am totally and fully immersed in the story. Most of the time, this feeling of immersion is achieved with good characterization. In silent protagonist games, there is no characterization, and therefore no reason to identify with the main character.

Playing as a silent protagonist makes me a passive component in the game's story. Nothing the character does carries any weight or meaning when there is no reaction or context for it. This is particularly distressful in Bioshock due to the situation that this character is thrust into. There is no reaction to the murderous Splicers, no hesitation for jamming as many needles and weird foreign objects into his body as he can, and he has nothing to say about a plot where what's at stake is nothing less than his free will and survival as a human being. If I suddenly injected myself with a syringe that inexplicably gave me the power to fire bees from my fingertips, I'd probably have something to say about it.

So every moment in Bioshock that was supposed to surprise, shock, or interest me fell flat because the main character was non-existent. None of the revelations or climactic battles carried any weight or felt like they mattered. I had no sympathy for the paper doll I was playing as, and I found it difficult to care about his fate or the fate of Rapture.

Bioshock was a great game, but I would not put it among the greatest stories in gaming history. I might put it as one of the greatest silent-protagonist first-person-shooter game stories, but that genre doesn't exactly have a lot of competition. I guess it at least tries to characterize the silent paper doll more than Half Life 2.

Silent protagonist games aren't necessarily bad, they just don't tell good stories. Bioshock and Half Life 2 are games that sacrifice story in favor of gameplay.

Next up I'll discuss Planescape: Torment!

Who The Hell Do I Think I Am?

Austin, Texas, United States
I've played games since my brother got an NES in the late 80s, and I'll play them until I'm a crusty old man. My opinions are based on those 20 years of experiences, and my own ambitions as a game artist and writer.