Zarathustran Analytics in Video Games, Part 3: Plotting the Plot

Continuing with our outlining of the three variables of a video game (player input, plot, and game design), we next come to the question of how to assess the story in a game. Rather than indulge in the mass sea of back story and plots at surface value, let’s talk about what the story in a game actually is: stuff you have minimal control over. You can’t change the back story. You have a limited number of choices concerning the plot’s outcome. You generally don’t get to pick who you associate with. The story in a video game is where player input finds meaning, and yet it is the very thing you cannot affect.

At the 2008 Game Developer’s Conference, during Ken Levine’s lecture about plot in games, an audience member stood up and complained that they hadn’t wanted to kill Andrew Ryan in Bioshock. Disregarding the fact that killing Ryan was a brilliant commentary on extremist ideologies and questioning authority, it begs the greater question of whether or not this was even a problem. Bioshock would’ve been a much weaker game if it hadn’t been for that scene, and Ken Levine himself has admitted that after the third act the game’s story pretty much goes downhill. So given that the Andrew Ryan uncontrollable sequence was the best part of Bioshock in terms of the story, what are you supposed to say to someone who didn’t like it? At what point do you stop and say, “No, this is what you should be doing and if you don’t like it then stop playing”? What are the merits of forcing a player to do something in video games because that’s what the story says to do?

On the positive side, forcing an experience on the player can ensure the game gets to at least some level of emotional depth beyond “PWN’D”. The most often cited emotional moment in video games is the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII and for good reason: after spending a huge portion of the game protecting her she still ends up getting killed. The writers did a reasonable job explaining why you can’t intervene (because of mind control), but countless fans still expressed frustration at the fact that you can’t resurrect her later either. They didn’t want the sad experience. Yet in order to make her death a real loss for the player, a tangible moment that doesn’t glorify or ameliorate losing her, the game had to make it permanent. It makes the experience of death more authentic. Why should the fact that Aeris is really and truly gone be a bad thing just because it makes the player unhappy? Just because they won’t voluntarily choose to have it happen doesn’t mean they won’t end up having a better experience as a result. Mixing both happy and sad moments in a game is a combination that’s only possible when the experience forces the player’s input occasionally.

But that can also backfire on a game as well. If an experience is overly traumatic and never lets up, it can end up driving people away. The goal of creating a deep plot is one thing, but expecting people to pay money to experience something painful is another. A good example would be Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, which is one of the best written yet saddest games made in a while. The game’s protagonists are a war-weary traitor and a pill popping psycho and the plot is about their quest for redemption that fails because of their own violent choices. In his infamous video review of the game, former Gamespot editor Jeff Gerstmann went so far as to complain that the protagonists and story were totally unlikable and actually made you not want to play the game. This is true — the game asks you to play offensive people and experience a brutal story about failure. Still, if you’re willing to get through Kane & Lynch‘s constant cynicism and swearing it does manage to deliver a truly haunting story that stays with you. The creators don’t even use static elements to inflict this. They give you two options about how to finish the game, it’s just that neither are happy and neither let you escape paying for the horrible crimes of your character’s past. Had the player been given the option of saving the day and being everyone’s hero, it would’ve broken the mood and betrayed the story’s themes. Yet numerous reviewers complained about the game being a downright negative experience for the player and that’s certainly true on a personal level. So even if some people do like a good dark experience once and a while, there is a point where people might reject being forced into it.

So what about games where the player does have a hundred percent input on how a story develops? The only real example where there are the least restraints on friends, your own character, and your actions are MMORPG’s. It doesn’t take long digging through fanfics and watching people play to realize several problems. For starters, the people who do try to implement story into the experience invariably make themselves epic heroes. Rarely, if ever, do they have any kind of tragic flaw or personality beyond the generic fantasy of the all-around awesome badass. In a totally free-form virtual world, human nature itself prevents any kind of meaningful story from developing. Even the ones who do go that far don’t ever make themselves experience consequences for their flaws. Why would they? How many people voluntarily experience consequences for their actions? Who would want to play as Hamlet, kill Claudius, and then complete the story by being killed because of their own refusal to accept the cruel world? What would they even learn from playing such an experience except that life sucks and everything is unfair? It doesn’t mean that Hamlet is an unworkable virtual experience, it just means that playing as anything except a model epic hero is kind of averse to our impulses with digital freedom. Without someone forcing your actions, the story quickly devolves into ‘Lord Awesome & His Fancy Clothes’. In these cases the game design must compensate for the weak plot, and it here that most MMORPGs shine to keep people engrossed.

Another keynote speaker at the G.D.C. was Raph Koster, who flashed pictures of Darfur massacres, Haitian slums, and FEMA trailers in New Orleans to his audience. He bluntly explained, “I sit and I look at what we do and I think ‘Goddamn we’re irrelevant.'” He went on to explain that despite the vast amount of work that goes into virtual worlds and player experience, they still have done little more than recreate Disney World. Given the differences between games with absolute player choice and ones that force them to experience tough moments, it stands to reason that both styles have their place in video games. Everyone likes a trip to Disney World now and again, just like everyone occasionally likes something somber with a little more emotional depth. The thing about somber moments, though, is that people aren’t used to experiencing them voluntarily. Beyond the goal of providing context to the actions of the player alongside the game design, the plot serves to give them the parts of the experience they would not come to voluntarily. Although this can occasionally backfire if the experience is too harsh, sometimes it is for the player’s own good.