Story Mode – A Miniblog about the Decline of Quality Narrative in Gaming

Now there’s a pretentious title!

Not long ago, on the DPAD Dependency Forums, I created a topic stating that I thought originality was essentially dead in gaming. What I really meant was that original story-telling was dead. Or, at the very least, dying. A good, well-plotted story with exciting characters and well-written dialogue is especially hard to come by in games, yet I feel that narrative is what drives games forward and makes certain ones stand out from the crowd. In a world where every other new release is an FPS, the better story will outlive the bigger gun.

I’m not about to suggest that storytelling is the be-all and end-all of games but it has to improve, lest the gaming world becomes as barren and uncreative as Hollywood. So that’s what this feature is going to be about. Stories in videogames past, present and future that reach out and tug your heartstrings, squeeze your adrenal glands, or scratch your furrowed brow.

We begin with Deadly Creatures – a February 2009 release on the Nintendo Wii.
Deadly Creatures - Sadly, Steve Irwin is not a playable character
Developed by Rainbow Studios, Deadly Creatures succeeded where most games of last year failed: it had atmosphere, and it had a good story.

Two men (voiced by Billy-Bob Thornton and Dennis Hopper) are hunting for gold in a non-specified American desert when they uncover a chest filled with the stuff, left over from the Civil War. Naturally, betrayal and murder soon rear their ugly heads and only one of the two is left standing. Standard stuff, then. This is a story template that’s been around for centuries, so why am I making a fuss over it? Because you play as the only witnesses to the crime: a scorpion and a tarantula.

Now these aren’t Disney-fied, wise-cracking, best-friend arachnids. They’re realistic, survival-of-the-fittest, designed-to-kill arachnids! So really they couldn’t give a damn about the murder they witness. Why would they, when a huge rattlesnake has its hungry eyes on them? While they’re trekking across huge desert landscapes in search of tiny bugs to feed on, do they break a sweat about the human plight? No, but as fate would have it the humans (some would say the true Deadly Creatures of the title) commit their act on the arachnids’ turf. So as you fight against nature for your very life, you end up repeatedly crossing paths with the murderer. Never interacting, though, just watching.

The scorpion's missions are action-orientated. The tarantula prefers stealthy kills.

This storytelling technique is rarely seen in books, movies or television – let alone videogames! If somebody can think of another literary example whereby an event unfolds, witnessed by a character who has no intention of interfering but whose own path will interect with the perpetrator until an inevitable confrontation… well, I’ll think of something really cool to give you.

That’s my Story Mode for this week, I promise the subsequent posts will be shorter! Please feel free to share your opinions by dropping comments here or finding me on the DPD Boards (where I am also known as The Hylian). Thanks for reading!

The Hylian – His Boots are Made for Hoverin’


3 Comments Add yours

  1. xeroxeroxero says:

    An excellent article, really enjoyed it, you make some really inciteful comments on a title I’ve been interested in for a long time. I wonder though, is narrative in gaming really dying? If you rewind a decade or so, you’ll find that most stories in games, arguably, were god-awful, can you think of much pre- Half Life that told a particularly interesting, genuinely meaningful story in new and innovative ways? If you go back further, 20 years lets say, the story was confined to game manuals, rarely more than an intro and an outro. Today, a lot more effort is concentrated on telling a good yarn. Is then story changing perhaps, becoming something different entirely?

  2. deadmanxiii says:

    i thought you might like it Xero. I can think of a couple of recent titles with stories that gripped me, Bioshock for example, blew my mind with its infamous twist towards the end. Are games a viable medium to tell a decent story? Other mediums such as movies or books have scenes where not much really happens to affect pace and build relationships between the viewer/reader and the protagonists. If a game does this too long then then player is at risk of being shot. A Game that got this very right was Uncharted 2, genuine character development during cut scenes, emotive and powerful moments interspersed between quality action set pieces. The scene in the Village is a cracking example of this, the player is free to wander the Village and explore.

    I do however wonder, how many people play games for the story? While narrative is important to some, is it possible that its just not important to the majority.

    the rise of casual games, such as Bejeweled and the continued success of sports franchises, and multiplayer heavy titles how that solid narrative isn’t why many buy games. Maybe people dont want to have their heartstrings tugged, and instead want nothing more than an interactive distraction.

  3. The Hylian says:

    Thanks for the comments guys! Now that I think about it, perhaps I’m looking at the classics through rose-tinted glasses. You’re right, of course, good plots have always been hard to come by. Still, while more and more modern games are getting it right, there are still plenty of developers unwilling or unable to create a decent story.

    Deadman raises a couple of very interesting points – the viability of games as a storytelling medium, and the requirement of decent narrative in making a good game. I said at the start of my article that I didn’t believe that the story maketh the game, but that it enhances the experience. Not only that, but for gaming to truly be seen as a mature medium (by which I don’t mean mature as in “GTA is a mature game”), it requires an element of story equivelant to those in other media.

    Which brings me to your next point, can games be capable of telling a decent story? Simply, yes I do. Maybe not so much in the high-octane action game (but then the same could be said of the action film genre) but in the deeper, more intricate games, the ones that require you to take your time more. The adventure game; the RPG; hell, Professor Layton proved that even puzzle games can be molded around a solid story!

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