Atmospheric Pressure – Is A Story Really That Important?

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Welcome, one and all (probably the same thing), to another dump of my grey matter on a topic that interests me within the over-branching subject of Game Design. This time I’m following on from something I mentioned in my Max Payne Retrospective, and looking at whether story in games are actually as important as the majority of developers seem to think they are. As well as that, I’ll be talking about how an effective atmosphere could perhaps achieve something a story would find out of its reach.

As any regular video gamer knows, the stories in the majority of video games are fairly dire. They all too often take the very bones of a successful film or other video game storyline, and fill in the rest as a kind of game of mad libs. As a result, the entire industry is inundated with stories that are in essence either knock-offs and blatant copies, or derivative messes of other video games which undoubtedly did the same thing. This begs the question – is story so important in a video game that developers feel the need to fill even the most straightforward game with some kind of narrative-driven drivel that serves no other purpose other than to drive the game forward.

Of course, this is the first point in favour of including a story – to give a game purpose and direction. Without story, many game developers would be at a loss as to how they could move the game forward with anything other than banal and repetitive objectives that do more harm than the story does in the first place. This is a valid concern; after all, games would quickly lose their allure if the player never felt like the game was going anywhere (at least in mainstream games – casual games like Peggle seem to thrive on the seemingly pointless goals and scores). Perhaps what I’m campaigning for here is not to remove stories from games altogether, after all life itself has a narrative drive, but to remove the overbearing elements the majority of the stories present in the games industry seem to contain.

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For example; do we really need another game where a guy we thought was out friend turns out to have been working alongside the baddies the whole time, but seems not to mind the fact he’s just gunned down thousands of his supposed teammates with you up to the point of reveal? Do we need one bad-ass boss that is somehow tied into the plot in such a way that everything depends on his demise? I would argue not, and would go further to say that such conventions are actually starting to affect the gameplay in an adverse way. After all, it has become normal for games to have boss fights every so often, and almost always these seem to be tied into the story, and yet it seems fairly accepted that boss battles are not a good thing. Nobody seems to enjoy them, and they feel unnatural and jarring to the flow of both narrative and the game in general.

What I believe might be more enjoyable to the player (and what is more important in a game than the players’ enjoyment?) would be a lighter touch of story with much more emphasis on the atmosphere that goes with the story. As I have said about Max Payne, while it did have a story within its’ folds, it was never overbearing in the same way other games were, and instead of making sure you understand every point of every part of the plot, it chose to keep the overall details light and fill in the rest with the atmosphere. One of my favourite things about Max Payne 2 was the TV series that was always on in the background throughout the game – called Address Unknown, I believe – which portrayed a skewed and nightmarish version of Max’s own tale, but could be completely missed by the casual player who wasn’t really paying attention. For those who soaked up the atmosphere, though, the world was rich in its own kind of story – one that was never forced, and not always present, but one that added a whole lot of depth to the world you inhabited.

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The game achieved this through the extraordinary atmosphere it produced, and for those that it touched (I, for example, am a huge Film Noir fan) it became more than just about filling in the gaps. Those added touches became almost as important as the somewhat fishy story going on in the foreground. Bioshock did this too, to an extent. Although far less successful, the world of Rapture could have been a great setting for a similar way of telling the story beneath the story, as it were. Instead, what you got were countless audio logs and the not-subtle-at-all ghost flashbacks which are explicitly stated by your guide as being flashbacks. Bioshock makes the fatal mistake of realising just how much work has been put into the world in which the game is set, and as a result wants to make sure you see it. Unfortunately, this has rather the opposite affect, making the player less interested than they might be had they found the information themselves.

One of the great things being bandied about about Bioshock before release was how it was a sort of ‘interactive novel’, which I think is actually a very good description of the storytelling process. However, the developers seem to have forgotten (not overly so, but somewhat all the same) that what they were making wasn’t a novel that could be made interactive, but a game that could contain elements of a novel within it. After all, Max Payne successfully managed to have whole sections of graphic novels worked into the overall set up without achieving the same overbearing feeling that I personally got from Bioshock’s storyline. This is a shame, because Bioshock did have an arguably decent story but, as well as falling into the trap of so many other games (a person who you think is on your side actually isn’t, blah blah blah), it told it in such an un-game-like manner that it was less compelling than it should have been.

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Left 4 Dead is another example where atmosphere and light story elements can combine to make a brilliant finished product. While the campaigns in the game are presented as ‘films’, they are actually far less derivative of the medium than pretty much any other mainstream game that you care to mention, at least as far as story goes. Instead, Valve focus on bringing another aspect of the movies to the video game – atmosphere. Which, as with Max Payne, resulted in a more fun experience for the player. There was plenty of story contained within the game if you cared to look for it – graffiti on the walls, carefully covered corpses, the walls of names of people who have been lost – but if you just want to play the game, you can do.

I do not intend to do away with the use of story within games. I understand the need for developers to drive a narrative forward, and therefore move the player though a game from beginning to end. However, I would urge them to make sure they understand that the player is never going to care as much about the plot as the character they are playing. What they care about, for the vast majority of the time, is having fun and feeling like they are in control. Max Payne obviously had a grudge against those people he was killing, they had after all killed his wife and son, but I was never forced into a situation where it was obvious I was meant to be feeling the same way. I understood why he was doing what he was doing, and I was all to happy to help him do it, but I couldn’t give a shit his virtual family was murdered. What I cared about was how it was awesome to slo-mo dive round corners with my guns blazing, and Max Payne let me do that. A Lot.

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