Why Are Videogames so Bad at Telling Stories?
Or: If Videogames Want to Be Movies, Why Don’t They Learn Lessons from Them?
Perhaps this is simply justification for slacking off on my own work and writing, but I value my time spent with videogames and anime as a means of seeing new and interesting narratives told through their respective mediums. Truly, I think some of the most progressive and exciting stories are being told through anime and games now. Some of my biggest narrative influences have come from stories like ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘Cowboy Bebop’, or games like ‘Metal Gear Solid’ and ‘Zelda’. Yet, while games often succeed in the larger narrative and raising interesting questions, I often find them failing in the smaller details like dialogue and tone. Why is this so common, and what can be done about it?
After holding off for years, I finally purchased a Playstation 4 because of a Black Friday deal that I thought was too good to pass up. Even though it was the future promise of playing ‘Death Stranding’ that sold me on the purchase, there are plenty of games exclusive to Playstation’s ecosystem that I’m only dipping my toes into now. Many of these games seem to draw influences from cinema and television, particularly the modern blockbuster, in a way that’s totally foreign to games on the Nintendo Switch, the other current generation console I own.
From the strong use of motion and facial capture as well as performances from notable cinematic and theatrical actors, to an emphasis on camera motion and the cut, it’s clear that many game developers are looking to television and movies for inspiration. Many of these games start with an expository cutscene under title credits, and slide away from gameplay to video at key narrative moments.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with drawing an influence from another medium. I’m fascinated by the ekphrastic writing (that’s writing that describes another artwork, often a visual medium like a painting or sculpture) of Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Sometimes, translating the vocabulary of one medium into the devices of another results in something new. However, videogames seem to draw a largely negative influence from some of the lazier devices of cinematic exposition, like training sequences and expository dialogue. While these devices are lazy in films, they’re damning in games.
In Marvel’s ‘Spider-Man’ which came with the console as part of a bundle, this influence is obvious, given the highly successful Marvel films that have flooded the box office in the past decade. I’m sure this profitability and Hollywood’s penchant for repeatability and familiarity in franchises that is partly responsible for this cinematic shift in videogames. However, the mediums are linked at an even deeper level, since the dawn of 3D gaming with the Nintendo 64 and Playstation, in which developers began to apply the vocabulary of cameras and perspective to their rendered creations.
I’ve been trying to get my girlfriend to explore some new videogame worlds, after her long-running obsession with collecting all the moons in ‘Super Mario Odyssey’. After completing the first mission and opening up the whole of New York, I turned the controller over to her to swing around the city. She quickly nailed the mechanics of traversing the urban jungle, and was having fun gliding around the skyscrapers and finding new tall buildings to climb, but Peter Parker would not let her get too carried away. Every ninety seconds or so, he’d say to himself (but really to us, the players), “Can’t forget to go meet Yuri in Chinatown!”.
What is the point of this? Does Insomniac Games truly think that I (as the player) am going to forget what the next mission is, even with the marker on the minimap, the way-point marker in the world, and the note in the menu? If these more heavy-handed information systems weren’t present, I might be more forgiving of the spoken dialogue reminder. Such a method could be seen as nuanced, like the methods used by ‘Morrowind’ to tell players what quests to undertake. In it, there are no quest markers or minimaps, only clues in text entries and via spoken dialogue between players. Even in that charitable reading, ‘Spider-Man’s’ use of monologue to remind the player of the story objective is still a bit on-the-nose.
These sorts of outbursts where the character talks to herself to remind the player of the objective, while annoying, is a relatively small inconvenience. With the lines repeated so often, they become almost noise to the player, losing meaning until the next mission, when they want you to do something else. All in all, it’s mostly lost in the countless other types of dialogue sent to the player in the form of news and radio broadcasts, police bulletins, and phone calls.
Parker as Spider-Man also has a series of quips for criminals, as any good superhero must. Crimes in progress will pop-up on your map while swinging around, leaving you to intervene or decide you have better things to do. If you jump in to stop them, Parker will say a line related to the crime in progress, like he is want to do. However, as far as I can notice, there’s only a few lines for each type of crime that can be committed, which is also a limited number. I’ve stopped a handful of break-ins, all starting off with Peter yelling, “You don’t look like locksmiths!”
These annoying bits of repeated dialogue and writing are bad, but only in the usual sort of videogame way. As someone who’s played a lot of videogames in my life, I understand why a developer might only write and record a few lines of dialogue for non-playable characters (Have you heard of the high elves?) or want the player to stay on track, and put a few different types of reminders in the game. However, as games start to adopt more of the forms and devices from cinema, we need to take a look at the way they use them, and if they’re effective in accomplishing their goals.
A specific type of cinematic game has become all but synonymous with AAA gaming, particularly on the Playstation ecosystem. Sony didn’t invent the cutscene, but the games exclusive to its platform have championed this specific use case for it. Games like ‘God of War’, ‘The Last of Us’, ‘InFamous’, in which the player undergoes an important journey with cutscenes at the most important story elements. Such story moments often line up with rudimentary screenwriting structuring, such as the Hero’s Journey, or the Three-Act Structure. As someone who studied screenwriting at university, I’m well aware of the place these devices hold, but find their implementation to be lacking. When we go a step further and apply them to games, we remove the critical element that defines games: player input.
In a cutscene, a player gives up the one thing that makes a game a game; their ability to interact with it. It’s as if the director is forcefully taking control in order to hit the plot point they want, which undervalues the player. A cutscene is essentially cinematic in nature, with a camera, set, actors, dialogue, lighting, sound, etc etc. And yet the cinematic elements that make these scenes are often amateurish at best, especially the writing. I’m not expecting every games writer to have gone to film school like I did (Not that I’m the world’s finest writer of course, nor would I say film school is necessarily a valuable experience), however I think it is important for someone working in a medium to have an understanding of that medium. If you want to write a good novel, having read and studied a few helps.
One of the games I was excited to dive into now that I was able to was ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’. In it, you play as a woman named Aloy in a post-post-apocalypse world. Animalistic robots roam the wilds, and you’re able to hunt these beasts and interact with the tribal people scattered throughout the land. This is all well and good, but the establishment of this narrative is painful.
Instead of just dropping you into a mysterious and vast world, something the ‘Zelda’ series is known for, the developers of ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ feel the need to build everything up from square one. It starts with Aloy as a nameless baby, being put into a basket on the back of her guardian, Rost. Rost decides to narrate the following montage of his arduous trek up the mountain to meet with a matriarch. He repeatedly tells this baby things like, “We are outcasts, from the tribe.”
There’s no way this would pass an Introductory Screenwriting Course, and I know because I have taken an Introductory Screenwriting Course.
This montage is a lovely overview of the world we get to explore, but by showing it all to the player within the first few minutes of booting up the game, you lose some of the wonder of discovering these locales for yourself. Meanwhile, the expository monologue is not instructive, nor is it interesting. If I were shown the script for this section and asked to provide notes, I would tell the writer that it’s far more powerful to show the audience these facts about the world than to tell them. Show, don’t tell. I can see they are outcasts by the way they interact with the other humans they come across. I can see the dangerous nature of the robots patrolling the lands by how they’re avoided and watching them hunt.
The problem here is something I see often in all sorts of writing, not just in games: the writer is too focused on their lore. I see writers all the time who are creating a fantasy world who get wrapped up in the minutiae of their own creation. Since J.R.R. Tolkien, every writer feels the need to write their own world’s bible and annals. That’s all well and good, and can help the writer to understand their world better, but by and large it’s not useful or interesting for the audience.
In the case of ‘HZD’, the game chooses to forcefully tell the player information they could see from the world, that isn’t relevant in the first place. Beyond being a heavy-handed narrative method, this information is not useful to the player, and only serves to demystify some of the world. In my view, when creating a fantasy / sci-fi world like this, it’s better to convey as little to the audience as possible. That way, your entire story feels like a puzzle to be solved which motivates the audience to delve deeper, and makes the audience feel smart as they learn more and more about it. When you resort to narrative and expository info dumps like this, the audience knows you think they’re too stupid to pick up this information on their own, which turns them away from your work.
Games as a medium have been met with a lot of disdain and lack of respect. Roger Ebert notoriously said games weren’t art, which seems to haunt many developers and critics to this day, based on how often it still comes up in the discourse (of course, I’m mentioning it right now). Part of the problem to me seems to be this aping of cinematic failings, rather than finding a more natural way to teach the player about the world through the use of the game’s mechanics and interaction with the created world. Of course, there are players who just want to interact with a ten hour movie, and there are times when that can be enjoyable.
If games want to tell a big cinematic story, that’s okay, but certainly not necessary. “Story-less” games like ‘Pac-Man’ and ‘Donkey Kong’ will continue to be beautiful in their own way, through the mastery of their players, and wonder of their mechanics. However, such things are beautiful in a sort of mechanical way, which isn’t moving in the immediate sort of way that a JMW Turner painting might be, but more like how a high level game of chess is beautiful. Whether or not this is art however, is anyone’s guess.
However, for games to truly come into their own, and tell the sorts of stories only they can tell, they need to rely less on the devices used in cinema and lean into interaction and player choice, as well as the overlap of differing game mechanics, which is unique to the medium.