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"Gimmie a Story, already!" - Commentary on gaming as a whole, particularly Single Player

Posted by Kenny (more from this author)
Saturday, May 8, 2010 - 2:05 am (EDT)
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Having finished Assassin's Creed 2 today, I took a look at my games library, expecting to find a new title to play. Then an interesting epiphany struck me and here I am, writing what would seem to be a useless rant about the games industry at large today.


These days I find that many of the games coming out lately are lacking in emotional involvement. There are many exceptions, don't get me wrong. Plot twists abound, cryptic riddles assault the player, intriguing him as to what's next. Such was Assassin's Creed 2. The single player campaign (I played with Sequence 12 and 13 downloaded, so the whole plot was revealed in sequence) was long and varied, the missions were plenty and unique, and the plot itself was a massive conspiracy of head-exploding proportions.

However, I'm finding that many developers seem to be intent on killing the single player story. Despite how fun multiplayer modes, both co-operative and adversarial, are, many single player stories lack depth.

This next sentences will alienate about half my readers, so bear with me, and everything will be hopefully made clear (Unlike the ending of Assassin's Creed 2. What the hell?)

There is a movement in single player stories to pack things with good gameplay that story is frequently left in the cold. This manifests in many ways, from the "sandboxization" of single player games (Borderlands, Far Cry 2), to the cryptic nature of the plotlines (looking at you, Prototype), to the general lack of emotional involvement (Pretty much every Halo single player ever made, excepting parts of the first).

There are examples from each area that demonstrate how to do a single player mode right- Assassin's Creed 2 obviously fills the boots of the cryptic and a quality sandbox title, but itself occasionally fails in emotional involvement late in the game. By the time I hit sequences 12 and 13, I was having trouble keeping up with the changes of characters. There were still the twists and the finale (a straight up fistfight with the main villain which seemed pointless as compared to fighting the main villain of AC1), but something still left me cold inside.

Despite my frequent criticisms of lengthy cutscenes, look no further than Metal Gear Solid titles for interesting, involving plots. Hideo Kojima's crew is up to their neck in a ridiculously convoluted plotline, but they still manage to pull me into the game's universe with fantastic character design, interesting thematic elements, and smart camerawork. The gameplay end of things, however, isn't always quite on the mark. Once you get into the swing of things, the controls work, but only in MGS4 does the in-game camera feel completely right. (This is an assumption based on my brief experience with the first chapter of the game, and even then it's not quite as tight as I would prefer.) Even so, Sony is right to consider the Metal Gear brand as one of it's biggest supporting pillars.

This illustrates a fundamental disconnect between gameplay and story. You need to have fun gameplay to keep the player rooted in the game's universe, but there needs to be the emotional undercurrent to really get them to accept the game's universe, characters, and story.

Final Fantasy titles occasionally approach this harmony, but sometimes stupid decisions are made simply to make the plot longer (also known as Late in the Season 24 Syndrome, a virus that affects FFVIII [Irving getting squeamish about taking a sniper shot at the big bad, despite being a teenager he should have taken the shot or Squall should have done it for him, because after all, we've spent fifteen hours killing monsters and mercenaries left and right and he doesn't have the balls to pull the trigger on a Hot Librarian Big Bad, as TV Tropes would have it] and other such titles.)

Half Life 2 and it's successors are very close to achieving a complete form of this harmony. The art of keeping the player rooted in Gordon's shoes reinforces the explosive and at times emotional events that occur around him. A pity that Valve decided to make Portal 2 instead, because I really find myself wanting to get back to that universe and see through the story to it's conclusion. Mass Effect and it's sequel, Mass Effect 2, had excellent plotlines and good gameplay mechanics. The problem is, the gameplay-disconnect also invaded both games, because the first game had less solid shooting mechanics but a superior antagonist, where the exact opposite was had for Mass Effect 2. And emotional involvement was very much the focus of the game- what other game out there can you play where you have player-directed character development in this huge of a vein? (Not to mention, getting to talk your main antagonist into suicide is also a huge pull into the believability of it's characters.)

Then there's the games that include story to fake depth. Any racing game that purports to have an involving plotline should piss off and die. Burnout is the way to go with a racing game- a very pure destructive rampage. It seems almost contradictory to my main point, but if you know your game isn't going to be involving, don't try to fake it. This also applies to The Saboteur and fighting games like the Soul series. We don't care that Cerventes killed off his own crew and he's seeking the spirit sword to destroy the world, driven mad by guilt. We care that he has an easily used move that impales your opponent with two swords and can instantly throw them off the field for a ring out. However, if your main antagonist goes off on a Nietzsche-style "gods are dead" rant before trying to drown Link in a massive sword duel on a slowly flooding city, that's a decent attempt at adding depth to a villain like Ganon.

Take something like "F.E.A.R." The game is a massive romp through grungy urban locales, offices, and bunkers. You have very little variety in setting which could easily kill your game. How do you fix that?

By being completely creepy as hell. The extent to which you get to know Alma, that creepy girl who loves to mess with lights and evaporate bodies into puddles of molten blood, and the mystery of how she got that way, are major player motivations throughout the story. The actual antagonist after you, Paxton Fettel, is less an antagonist as he is a vessel for Alma's machinations. And the way the character acts just ups the creep factor. Over the course of the game, you get to see his character being broken down by mind control, his memories being blurred together with that of Alma's. And when you invariably get to kill him towards the end, you feel something. Grim satisfaction, with a hefty dose of pity.

There's the kicker. You feel all kinds of things throughout the game. And, true to the title's name, you will invariably get the bejesus scared out of you at many points throughout your grim slog through squads of telepathically controlled soldiers (who have amazing AI by the way).

By contrast there's a good reason I could never finish Fallout 3. The beginning of the game was incredible. Emotionally involved like few others. You're literally spending portions of your youth in a bunker with your father, forced to raise you single after your mother's death. You get a shitty birthday party and a BB gun. Then your father skips out of your life to the outside world, and you wish to follow him. It's a great beginning to a game that's just so packed with so many things to do, with such an interesting world, and all these great things going on, and suddenly my interest in the game just sputters and stops.

I call this "Content Overload." It's what happens when you stuff your game so full of things to do that you just get turned off because there's just so much. Assassin's Creed 2 was in danger of this, and in fact I abandoned the game for several months because of so many other games that I needed to focus on.

Games in the sandbox genre are very susceptible to this disease, much like /b/ is to the Cancer. (Wow, did I just make that reference?)

Because ultimately, a focused single player campaign can be very beneficial to the games industry as a whole. This does not mean we get Bioshock repeats (Because ultimately, despite Bioshock being fun the first ten hours, has four enemeis total.), but more focused, personal stories, which is what the games industry as a whole finds itself sorely lacking.

Examples of a tight focused narriative would be games like Rainbow Six Vegas, Half Life 2, Metroid Prime (one of the finest examples to reinforce the "games as art" argument in years), F.E.A.R., Condemned: Criminal Origins, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Dead Space, and other such games.

The way to do this kind of game right is to also have slightly less linear level design, so that you don't necessarily have to take the same path each time. Rainbow Six Vegas can always be approached in different ways tactically, but is more limited than the real king of focused non-linearity, Chaos Theory. There are so many ways to tackle the missions in the game. How do we enter the Panama Bank? Through the front door, the side door, or the roof atrium? What order to activate the bank terminals in? Should I move up the stairs, or go through an airshaft in the bathroom to the other side of the complex and work up from there?

This is the kind of level design I wish more game designers practiced. Chaos Theory's maps were varied and interesting, and it's the one game I consistently go back to play. Certainly there are other games that do this kind of design, but it's a question of how linear or how open your level design is. And the story needs to go around these kinds of nuances. Mass Effect lets you tackle your missions in pretty much any order, and scales difficulty accordingly so that you can check out different areas at different times in the overarching plot. Side missions in Mass Effect are also plentiful, but nowhere near "content overload" levels.

So ultimately the problem with many games boils down to the following problems:

- Bland, uninteresting story campaigns, or overcomplicated narratives that make players heads explode

- Level design that is either too constrained or too open

- Weapons are too similar, and thus the arsenal gets stale quickly (such as FFXIII's weapon replacements all feeling too much of the same, despite the upgrade options)

- Uninspired character design and development (Master Chief, generic badass extraordinaire, with no emotional connections to the events around him, and even rescuing Cortana in Halo 3 felt pointless)

- Asinine plot developments driven by character stupidity

- Annoying voice acting (Yahtzee was right about Vanille)

- "Content Overload" dragging down player modivation to finish the game

- By contrast, overfocused, six hour games sold at full price (like Mirror's Edge)

Hopefully the next few years will see game manufacturers beginning to resolve these kinds of problems, and the industry will be better for it.

categories: splinter, cell, commentary, death, of, single, player, gaming, mgs, sandbox, story

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vecima said:

A man after my own heart ;)

I had the same problems with Oblivion, Fallout 3, The Witcher, Grand Theft Auto IV, and other older games.  I start out fully enthusiastic to be playing such an awesome game, and somewhere along the line I can't even bring myself back to it, in part because I can't remember what I was doing, and I can't bring myself to play those first 20 hours again.

I do find myself finishing the story oriented games though.  Recent Examples: Assassins Creed II, Bioshock 2, Gears of War 2.  That's right Gears of War 2.  I didn't play it until recently.  Even a crap story like that one that keeps going all by itself held my attention more than Fallout 3 (an awesome story that suddenly stops and waits for you to pick it up).

This raises an interesting question.  Would I say Gears of War 2 was a better game than Fallout 3?  No way.  I don't even have to think about it, but if I do, I realise that GoW2 has completely forgettable characters, and a plot that feels like it was hacked together by 12 year olds.  Fallout on the other hand was mature, and has one of the most memorable (if not completely unique) settings in gaming, and yet I can't bring myself to finish it.

Why can't I go back to Fallout 3? It doesn't seem right.

by the way, sorry for taking 3 days to approve your article.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010 - 12:46 am (EDT) login to reply

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