I spend a lot of time playing video games.
I also spend a lot of time reading and writing stories.
When I decide what game I want to play, it’s not which one has the best graphics, the most innovative gameplay or offers the biggest test of my skill that grabs my attention.
It’s which one can tell me the best story.
Because of that I’ve been really interested in looking at how games can help us tell stories, as the format uniquely puts the player directly in the driving seat of the character, making all of the decisions.
For years, we’ve been promised games where you can truly chose your own adventure, where you can play in fantastically realised worlds that is changed by your actions.
In my opinion, most games to date have failed at this.
Yes, you can make changes but they are usually superficial, or confined to the final few per cent of the game – do you get the happy ending, or the sad?; are you paragon or renegade?; do you get the werewolf powers or the vampire powers?
Going down one path might unlock a certain set of scenes or dialogue choices compared to another, but you essentially travel the same path and end up in the same place.
I can understand why: making a game is expensive and you don’t want to waste time recording dialogue and creating environments if half your audience is going to miss them.
To get around this script writers create ‘story vines’, where small branches come off the main trunk of the story but they always come back to that main drive to the end.
All of my favourite video games have a strong storytelling element, though none have managed a true ‘choose your own adventure’.
Some writers have tried to give a sense of true choice by going for open world games.
Supposedly, these allow you to tell the story you want to tell, but they still suffer from the same issue in that, yes, you can do the quests in any order, but once you start one you’re pretty much set to run on the rails of the game.
I also find that in most open world games, your actions can’t have too much of an effect on the world at large, because you risk breaking the narrative for quests later on (I found that Skyrim was a particularly bad offender in this regard).
It leaves this particular player feeling a little cheated – if my quests don’t change anything, what am I even doing them for?
The closest I have seen to a game with a true story tree, where your decisions branch off leading you towards a completely different path, are visual novels.
But while these games are rich in narrative, they are usually little more than glorified text adventure games with no voice acting and simple anime style graphics.
However, it does show that it’s possible to create a real choose your own adventure, but now if we could just join that together with decent graphics, we’d be laughing.
People have tried, most notably in the Telltale Games series, but all the ones I’ve tried have only ended up annoying me as no matter what you chose the outcome is usually the same.
(Which really irritates me. There’s more than one occasion where your Big Decision has zero effect on the game.)
One game that looks like it might succeed in marrying up high quality graphics etc and true choice story telling is Detroit: Become Human, which is due out this year, so here’s to hoping.
Then again, maybe I’m asking too much from my games because, as an old friend once told me:
“Playing games for the plot is like watching porn for the plot – there is one, but that’s not really the point, is it?”
This post was inspired by listening to Writing Excuses Season 12, Episode 21: Narrative Bumper Pool.