Sequencing
My Words in Other Voices

Why There Are No Great Game Stories

Sevensamurai01 Battle_beyond_stars

It is unfortunate that there are no great game stories. It would be nice, when people ask what I would single out for excellence in game narrative, to have some quick and easy retort; some title I could comfortably pull from memory with the confidence of many days repetition. But alas, I am at a loss to find anything in the literary history of videogames thus far that aspires to greatness. This is not to say that there are not good stories in videogames, nor that there are not excellent writers and narrative designers working in videogames – one of the toughest storytelling media around.

The thing about great stories, in any medium, is that they are not simply of their time – they’re timeless. Great stories can be told again and again, in many different settings and retain some hint of greatness. This said, there can be a marked difference in quality. Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai achieves greater mastery of the cinematic form than Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars, despite the same essential plot (which achieved its greatest commercial success in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven). Great plot. But as entertaining as Corman’s sci fi hokum may be, it is significantly shy of the subtlety of Kurasawa’s narrative. Seven Samurai doesn’t just have a great plot, it’s a great story; The Magnificent Seven does a decent job adapting it to a Western, while Battle Beyond the Stars is... well, fun.

And maybe that’s the problem. Battle Beyond the Stars, and practically any romping genre piece (space opera, fantasy quests, treasure hunters and so on) can be fun, but can’t quite aspire to greatness, because great stories, in the sense that literary critics mean, are about the human condition – the ineffable essence of life; diverse enough to fuel endless stories, and inescapably authentic. Most game stories are either silly fun, or clumsy revenge tales that facilitate violent power fantasies in the play of the game. Maybe fun stories are better suited to videogames because videogames (or at least, their commercial form) are about having fun?

Another problem – the seedy underbelly of videogames, in fact – is the repetition. Would you like to be running down a corridor shooting droves of enemies, or running through a forest hacking down droves of enemies (and then a mine... a desert... dungeons...)? Or you could optimise an economy over and over again, or drive down the street over and over again, or perhaps you could repeat a jump over and over again? Repeat until you get it right. Which is fun – for a surprisingly large number of people. 94% of gamers say they are okay or good at completing repetitive tasks, and over a quarter of these say they find it very easy.

(Not to mention repetitive tasks are habit-forming, essentially by definition: if you learn to do it over and over again, you’ll keep doing it as long as it’s fun. And understandably, habit-forming games sell better – or at least, sell more reliably.)

Most successful videogames involve repetition – either to learn the skills to progress, or to hoard the supplies (including experience in cRPGs) needed to succeed. Great stories thus far in history have never been as repetitive as videogames, which makes it difficult to know how one would make a great story in this new form. But I think we can be pretty certain it isn’t by any of the methods we’re currently using – not by the tacked-on animated movie, neither by the well-orchestrated spookhouse ride, nor the pulp adventure story shuffled into a game. We have found many ways to make fun games, and indeed there are many great games, and some such games have good stories. But still no great stories, alas.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that there are no great game stories yet, but isn’t it exciting to see how things might develop? 

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Almost all great stories rely on some pretty improbable plot twists. If things had panned out differently, they would merely have been good or average stories. The reader/viewer has no choice; they are forced down the author's narrow view of the story.

I've not yet seen an adult videogame* that removes all choice from the player - there is usually some notion of success or failure, at least. This added choice may well prevent the telling of A Great Story, simply because there's more than one story.

* I have seen some children's games that have forced the gameplay in order to tell a story. I have to say I found them rather uninspiring.

94% of gamers say they are okay or good at completing repetitive tasks, and over a quarter of these say they find it very easy

But how many said they PREFER this activity?

I'm still not sure what a 'great' story means, having not seen any of the films mentioned. The one story often cited as 'great' - Lord of the Rings - didn't actually seem 'great' to me. Inventive and genre-defining perhaps. And individual sections of the books were fun. But as a whole, it seemed often wrapped up in details that didn't matter (to me) at the expense of those that did.

Although my mind might change after having seen the much-lauded Seven Samurai, I am dubious that there can be any universally accepted examples of 'great stories'.

On a related note, have you played The Bounce? (3-7 minutes)

Seven Samauri really is a great story, the story of a determined few against the many.

A great story in games? I would suggest that of Planescape:Torment. You awake in a morgue with no memory; how you got there, who you are, etc.. and you spend the rest of the game trying to find out about your own character.

I second Domke's comment, and raise him a dynamic; the dynamic of few against many, combined with the right aesthetic balance, would be a great game story. But would it be recognized as a great game story? I think Beethoven's 9th had a great story, but nobody talks about it because it's not something common to the entire audience, it's just my experience with that music. Planescape was a great game with a great fiction, the story varied based on how you played the game - sure it was in a merely permutable, dodecahedron kind of way, but it worked.

I second (third?) 'Planescape: Torment'. There are at least elements of greatness there, exemplified in the expert echoing of the theme - "what can change the nature of a man?" - in both story and gameplay terms. Player agency is integrated in a way I haven't seen in other story-based games outside of interactive fiction; heavily text-based games (as Torment is) have a big advantage in the agency stakes for the time being. Torment even manages to make certain repetitive RPG tasks feel meaningful through context.

Unfortunately, some of its stylistic trappings do hurt the experience. When recommending it to friends, for instance, I always need to warn them about the horribly sexist character portraits. Yes, we expect to find succubi and prostitutes (both of whom feature in the Planescape setting) half-naked - the problem is that virtually every other woman in the game is presented this way as well.

I am grateful that Black Isle used the interesting Planescape setting rather than all-too-familiar Forgotten Realms, though.

Oh yeah, and what of the story of Passage?

Thoughtful comments...

Peter: I'm not sure all great stories depend upon improbable plot twists - although I'm not denying this can happen - but I agree with you that the player's choice is a serious issue. Ernest talks about the tension between the game and narrative, and there is certainly this problem to be overcome.

But I think it is not the choice which is the problem, per se, so much as the fact that the choices of most players are the more juvenile (more fun!) options - and this element is what savagely destroys the hope of a great game story. At least, in the current climate.

Bezman: "But how many said they PREFER this activity?"

Touché! :) I'm not going to claim that this is the source of fun for players, but it is striking that this is a ubiquitous skill in the current game climate.

"I'm still not sure what a 'great' story means"

Sure - I held back from more exposition in the effort to keep this short, and in the sure knowledge that we could expand upon this in the comments.

You are certainly correct that there cannot be a universally great story, as there is certainly a subjective element in determining greatness in literature that can never be eliminated. But at the same time there is some signal of quality that pushes through the noise. For instance, Don Quixote, Dangerous Liaisons, Pride & Prejudice, David Copperfield, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, Nostromo and Kafka's The Trial are all widely recognised as great literature - admittedly, a long time after their initial publication. ;)

The essence of greatness in literature appears to be authenticity and layered themes - great literature shows a deft hand at both plotting *and* motive and character (most videogames focus on plot - which they do badly - and ignore motive - which they don't do at all).

I'm glad you mentioned Lord of the Rings: I have staunch criticisms of this work. The prose is excellent, the plotting is shoddy in my opinion. The book, having established Frodo as the protagonist in the first part, runs into a crisis in the second when Tolkein becomes more interested in the character of Aragorn. So for the final part you have *two* protagonists - which could be genius, were it not for Frodo's narrative devolving into absolute travelogue and 300 pages of Frodo bitching about how cold he is and how heavy the ring is. :) It is entirely clear that this was written on the fly, with no prior plotting, and in my opinion it hurts an otherwise interesting work.

It remains one of the better fantasy stories (although thematically light), but Mervyn Peake's Gormanghast trilogy - although marred by Peake's dying before completing it - strikes me as superior (although perhaps harder to read). Even that might not cross into greatness in the sense I'm employing it here.

Now that Seven Samurai has been hyped to you, I hope this does not turn you against the film! (I know this often happens to me - I'm sure I wouldn't hate The Matrix as much as I do if people hadn't tried to convince me it was great before I went to see it!) I want to rabble on about how brilliantly layered the narrative of Seven Samurai is, and how it utilises many parallel themes almost effortlessly - but I don't want to ruin the film for you further. :)

Just be warned: it's long (about three hours, I think)... if you don't get on with long films (which I usually don't, actually) you might want to give it a miss.

Domke: "Seven Samauri really is a great story, the story of a determined few against the many."

That's certainly the *plot* of Seven Samurai, but the stories of Seven Samurai are many and varied... Each of the Samurai has a different reason for defending the village - no-one is there out of mere sympathy (although the fact that sympathy does become engendered between the Samurai and the villagers is crucial to the story).

Without giving too much away, the film is also the story of the decline of importance of the warrior culture which had dominated Japan for a millennium, and the tensions within a stratified society. It is also the story of a boy's journey to manhood, and the story of a nobody who by lying becomes somebody... I could go on and on but it would be very boring! :)

Patrick: "I think Beethoven's 9th had a great story, but nobody talks about it because it's not something common to the entire audience, it's just my experience with that music."

I get what you're gesturing at here, but I feel it waters down the idea of story to the point of considering all art as a "story". In the sense of one's experience of art, I feel this is valid - and would make the same claim - but it doesn't get at what we're trying to explore here very directly, as you surely recognise. ;)

Tim Knauf: the very fact that you can talk about Planescape: Torment in terms of its theme immediately elevates it to the top tier of game narrative! :D But let me ask: can you imagine this game getting nominated for (say) a Nebula award? Even the Nebula winners are generally shy of what I am calling "great" here...

---

And without addressing anyone in particular...

On the subject of Planescape: Torment, alas, I never played this game, although I saw it running. Ernest certainly thinks this is the best of the game narratives so far. But, cynically, I find it hard to believe that a D&D game can achieve more than the best of the D&D novels, none of which really achieve greatness (except in the narrowest of genre perspectives). I really do want to give it a solid shot at some point, though, as all the good game narratives are worth experiencing. If only I could play it without having to play on PC!

And as for both The Bounce and The Passage, these are nice little art games, but they are hardly the games to convince the Pulitzer Prize board to add a category for games! :)

The ultimate question, I suppose is: can game narrative achieve greatness in the sense that aforementioned novels have? And if not - if the tension between agency and narrative in games cannot stretch far enough - is there *another* flavour of greatness available to videogame narrative that we have simply failed to uncover (or cannot uncover in the current commercial climate)?

Thanks for the comments everyone!

I assume we're not including Interactive Fiction, or I'd have to make a case for Photopia. It's only a few days since I played it -- but I've been *thinking* about the story ever since I played it, and if that's not the mark of good art, I don't know what is.

It's also a very linear, minimalistic, text-based game, so there's THAT. It's as close to a novel as a game can be and still be considered a game.

Well, a few things. Seven Samurai has no revolutionary plot twists. It sets you up as a story about seven samurai defending a village against bandits, and while there are unexpected developments, that's basically what you get. It's a great story, and it's mostly without twists.

Second, the idea of "some people defending a village", is in no way remarkable. I think what makes the story of Seven Samurai remarkable is that it's about a small group of people making a stand against the crushing injustice of the world, and making a final stand, as the world is changing, and there might not be a place for them after this. None of that has anything that ties it to Japan, or Samurai, or Bandits. It's a great story because it generalizes so well.

Finally, I think there are great game stories out there, but they're marred by other issues, usually delivery. Case in point: Xenogears. Ham fisted delivery, repetitive gameplay, and a host of other problems, but at its heart, it was an incredibly compelling story about your main character becoming comfortable with the exercise of his incredible power, and then resolving his issues towards his mother enough so that he can embrace the love interest as an equal, as opposed to a mother surrogate. It's got all these specifics that border on uninspired, but the heart of the story, the part that we can generalize and relate to our experience, is fascinating.

Chris: "But let me ask: can you imagine [Planescape Torment] getting nominated for (say) a Nebula award?"

Oh, heavens no! I guess it shows how starving at least some of us are for great game stories that I would even single a D&D-based one out. (In the way that the funny-but-not-hysterically-so-yet-celebrated-like-the-comedic-achievement-of-the-century 'Still Alive' from Portal shows that some of us are very hungry for humour in games.)

I think it *does* rise above the average D&D novel, though, purely because it has some ambition. I get the feeling that the novels' authors begin enamoured with the setting and simply glue on a story. I don't know much about Torment's development, but the story feels like it could have been developed outside of D&D constraints. Perhaps it was only videogame marketing realities that meant it ended up married to a D&D universe?

Trevel: "I assume we're not including Interactive Fiction, or I'd have to make a case for Photopia."

Heh, maybe if I keep pestering Chris every few months, he'll eventually take a closer look at the genre. IF's strong 'auteur' tradition has led to some amazing experiments with storytelling. I'm not sure any work has achieved greatness yet, but works like Photopia, Varicella, Galatea, Floatpoint, Bronze and Shade point in some fascinating directions.

Interesting firestarter, my initial thoughts here.

Trevel: ah, Interactive Fiction - adventure games reincarnation. :) Please forgive my abject failure to explore this field thoroughly. I have no reason nor excuse for having continued to overlook it, unless it is the fear that if I like it, I will start writing my own. ;)

William: "It's a great story because it generalizes so well."

I believe you hit the nail squarely here; this ties into what I was saying that great stories have a timeless quality.

And yes, there are remarkably few twists in the tale, and those that are are revelations about people rather than the strange coincidences Peter alludes to.

Nice to see someone else who knows Seven Samurai well - your comment "..and making a final stand, as the world is changing, and there might not be a place for them after this" - really does capture the high level thematics of the movie for me; a subtle yet poignant theme.

Xenogears, you say? Delighted to hear something unusual cited in the context of good game stories! I wish I didn't get so fiendishly addicted to RPGs, as I would like to play more of them and explore games like this - but the risk to my time and sanity is severe. :)

Tim: "I guess it shows how starving at least some of us are for great game stories that I would even single a D&D-based one out."

LOL! Yes, I feel what you say here, and also about the absence of humour in games. It's a remarkably stunted emotional universe we've built in the industry, alas.

"I get the feeling that the novels' authors begin enamoured with the setting and simply glue on a story."

Ha, this is an endemic problem in games as well as pulp fantasy novels: setting and story are easily confused concepts. Consider how many RPGs spend most of their text describing the setting, rather than developing characters...

"I think it *does* rise above the average D&D novel, though, purely because it has some ambition."

Not having played, I can't comment, but I can well believe what you say here. Has no-one seen an interview with the authors of Planescape: Torment to get a wider perspective from them, I wonder?

Dan: I fixed your broken link, and commented over on your blog.

Thanks for the comments, everyone! We've sketched the outlines of the mystery, at least, even if we can't get to any answers, it seems.

Part of the trouble with storytelling in games is that I don't think we've figured out what genre we are yet. Are we a novel? Are we a movie? Are we closer to a novel or a movie?

As has been pointed out, computer games are barely a few decades old; novels and plays are thousands of years old, and movies, while relatively recent, are essentially derived from plays -- not exact but enough that the history adds weight to it.

What's the history for a computer game story? They started out more novel-like, and have changed to being more movie-like -- they haven't even stayed consistent during their time. We know the rules for writing for novels, for short stories, for plays, for movies -- we do NOT know the rules for writing for games.

Yet.

And once we do, we will make great stories out of them; not novel-stories, nor movie-stories, but GAME-stories.

Interesting stuff :) I can say that game stories (being a brand new medium, relatively, compared to novels and linear stories) gives players choice, and that is an entirely new concept to any type of story.

It'd be really really tough to translate Seven Samurai's story into a format that required choice, for instance.

Although it's an excellent film, I think the great game stories will be very different. Perhaps we're not quite there yet (give them a chance, videogames haven't been around very long :) ). Up until very recently, many games didn't have stories - at least a good third of videogame history has the majority of games on arcade cabinets or low powered home consoles, and after that, it was slow that games with story was a concept that gained traction. I agree - it'll be great seeing the first game with a great story (I admit - there are many good ones, but I too haven't played Planescape Torment yet).

Technical limitations meant the first novels, radio shows, TV shows and films were pretty limited. The advance of technology hopefully will allow a true great game story (and not a good novel shoved into a game concept).

Wouldn't it be great for there to be a framework for many stories available, and the player (and NPC's) facilitate it, providing possibilities in greater depth then a simple narrative. Playing a book isn't all it's cracked up to be, and I for one will not consider any linear plot a great game story, only possibly good, since the entire point on games is choice - not just in how to get from A to B, but whether to go to B at all!

I tried looking at Planescape Torment last year. It might have had an interesting story, but after being spat out of the long "introduction" and into the tedious D&D RPG-style game (of that time) I very quickly lost interest.

And there seemed to be a lot of CDs to get through for the gameplay to be that uninspiring. Unfortunately I find it hard to traverse backwards down gamings jewel filled halls, preferring the newer and theoretically more advanced gameplay/stories/game spaces...

As for good/bad stories in games - anything I am not hammering the gamepad to skip the cut scenes of is a winner in my book ;-)

Trevel: "We know the rules for writing for novels, for short stories, for plays, for movies -- we do NOT know the rules for writing for games."

I heartily agree! My pet phrase is: the narrative language of games is still being written.

Andrew: "Wouldn't it be great for there to be a framework for many stories available, and the player (and NPC's) facilitate it, providing possibilities in greater depth then a simple narrative."

Yes, I think there's something to be said for this... but there is a question about whether this state would be achieved from authorial intent - people embedding stories into the framework - or from procedural mechanisms - dynamic generation of stories.

The latter is *possible* but is far out of our grasp at the moment... the former might be achievable sooner, but it is certainly no easier! :)

Neil: "anything I am not hammering the gamepad to skip the cut scenes of is a winner in my book ;-)"

Ha ha! Quite. ;)

What about adventure games?
Some of them have quite good stories.
And compared to other games, with no story at all, I would consider them to be great.
I must mention "Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis" (my favorite) and "The Dig", both old LucasArts classics. I heard the script for "The Dig" was supposed to be used in a movie.

Alex: I feel the issue here is whether one measures "greatness" against other games (in which case the adventure games have a definite edge) or against other media (in which case, we are lacking any great stories).

Best wishes!

I was just passing by, and figured I would leave a tip for a great story in gaming. Check out the Legacy of Kain series. It has a maddeningly intricate plot revolving around a pair of excellent characters, both of which are not consistently the protagonist or the antagonist.

An sample scene from Soul Reaver 2:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7SQ2Wu6PvI&feature=related

I saw Chris asking for links to Planescape interviews. I checked to see if anyone has posted any interviews and saw none. So it's probably up to me. Anyway, there is this two part interview up in RPGWatch which I'm going to link now.

Part I

Part II

I don't know how much insight you can get from that interview, but it's the most detailed one I could find.

Anyway, if you do once play Torment, would you be so kind to review it here in your blog :)?

Wry Guy and Drunken Irishman: thanks for the links! I'll check these when I get a chance.

And if by some miracle I do find a way to play Planescape: Torment, I'll be sure to post about it - just don't hold your breath, as it could be a while. ;)

Best wishes!

Grim Fandango.

With regards to playing Planescape: Torment, the recently launched GoG.com, which digitally distributes old PC games with some emulation tricks to ensure they run properly on modern systems...does not currently have that game. But their "wishlist" section, where users can vote for the games they'd most like to see appear on the service, has PS:T at second place, so it's worth keeping an eye out.

I'd say that some adventure games have great stories relative to other media.

A few examples:

- All three Gabriel Knight games. Admittedly they were released a while ago but with Jane Jensen working on Gray Matter which is due to be released this year, I'm hopeful I'll have another game to add to that list soon.

- Grim Fandango

- The Longest Journey and Dreamfall

- Culpa Innata

- Broken Sword (the first game at least).

Laura: I would happily put some of the stories you mention up against other videogame stories and view them positively, but I still don't think they would stand up against great stories in film, theatre and novels. Broken Sword, for instance, is a solid adventure tale, but it's hardly Nobel Prize for Literature quality. :)

This post expresses my opinion that videogame stories are not candidates for greatness in the sense that this term is used in other media... or rather, that we have yet to find a way to tell stories in videogames that attains a similar degree of greatness. It might be possible... but probably not by adapting existing genre fiction.

For a start, genre fiction (sci fi, fantasy, horror etc.) already faces an uphill struggle to greatness, and there are only a few stories that push past the entertainments of the form - 1984 and Dune spring to mind, but even in the case of Dune one cannot imagine it appealing on such a universal scale that it might win something other than a specific science fiction award.

Good videogame stories might be able to stand toe-to-toe with good genre fiction... maybe... but even then, I don't think the best we've had so far is as good as the best genre fiction.

This, however, reflects the rather excessive demands I place on videogame stories, and in no way should be seen as demeaning what is being achieved in modern videogame writing. :)

Thanks for commenting - new voices are always welcome!

Hehe well if you compare Broken Sword to movies with a similar genre, say the Indiana Jones movies for example, I think they're quite comparable. Sure, Indiana Jones may not be literary genius but it's a popular enough series to, in my mind, qualify as great storytelling.

You mentioned that videogames may be able to stand toe-to-toe with good genre fiction, but that no game so far has been as good as the best genre fiction. I completely agree with you and would add that no movie so far has been as good as the best genre-fiction novel. Perhaps this is a limitation of both mediums that they can't yet rival what our imaginations can conjure.

It does seem that a lot more could be achieved with video games though. This is a medium where the player really does become the protagonist so in some ways it seems like they should have a stronger psychological effect on the player than movies and books. I know this is an older article I've jumped on to but I think Bioware have been breaking new ground is this area for some time.

Incidentally I found your website after playing Ghost Master and I do want to add that I thought for a strategy game, it had some of the best story and characters I've seen :).

Laura: thanks for continuing our conversation. (And thanks for your kind words about Ghost Master - I was really pleased with the way we constructed the story content in this game, which was very different to anything I'd seen previously.)

You raise an interesting challenge here: has any (genre) movie exceeded any genre-fiction novel? I personally believe it has. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are light years beyond the Lensman novels they draw upon, and Raiders of the Lost Ark is better than King Solomon's Mines (the book that started the Lost World and expedition adventure genres).

Ah, but of course you say better than the *best* genre-novels, and the novels I cite above are clearly not the high water mark. So I must, reluctantly, agree with you here. However, I wish it noted that in the wider scope of film there are many movies that are as good or better than the best novels - the work of Akira Kurasawa that I mention in this piece, for instance.

I agree that there's a lot more that can be done with games as a narrative form, but unlike some videogame fans I am not of the opinion that what we're headed for is a necessarily superior storytelling form. I believe the fact that the player of a game has interactive choices actually weakens the potential of the form quite significantly, for reasons too complex to go into here (future post, perhaps).

And no problem reopening discussions on older posts - the rules of the Game allow for this. ;)

Best wishes!

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