Ask almost any video game developer and they’ll tell you storytelling is a critical part of any game. Basically the only games that don’t include some form of storytelling are puzzle games, and even they have the occasional background story. Yet it’s so easy to get storytelling wrong and end up frustrating the player with repetitive, boring dialogue. Choosing the right types of storytelling for your game is critical for making sure you maintain the player’s interest and keep them involved with the story. To this end, there are four main ways to communicate a game’s story.
This is storytelling at its most basic level. At the start of the game, or before missions, the player is presented with a block of text to read through (or more often skip). It does the job of communicating the story, but it doesn’t involve the player at all, and often leaves a big gap between the story and the “actual” game. This was most common in early games – Wolfenstein 3D, for example – but mostly died out in the 2000s. And for good reason, too – games are an interactive medium, and so reading large blocks of text breaks flow and can bore the player.
However – for there is always a “however” – if your game is particularly short or simple, like a quick Flash platformer with only a handful of levels – sometimes the text block is the only viable storytelling method. Breaking repeatedly for dialogue or cutscenes might double the game’s length, and there usually isn’t a particularly complex story. Use it with caution, though – by using text blocks instead of other storytelling methods, you run the risk of boring the player and turning them away from your game.
Cutscenes are the storytelling method of choice for most modern AAA games. The player gets to sit back and watch the story unfold as the characters do the talking (or the running and jumping, or the leaping from exploding buildings).
The big advantage of using cutscenes is that you can plan out a scene from start to end. You can time the music to the events on screen. You can make sure the scene has as big an emotional kick as possible. This is a lot harder when the player is in control, as it’s easy to spoil a dramatic death when one of the characters is jumping about on desks and throwing things around. It’s still, possible, mind, just more difficult.
The problem with cutscenes is that it excludes the player. They don’t get to take a part in the action. They don’t get to affect decisions. This is fine when cutscenes are used only as exposition tools, and not to show action. But sometimes developers get tempted to start using their cutscenes to show that, too. At this point, the player just feels excluded. “This scene looks really cool – I just wish I could experience it myself,” they think to themselves. Ultimately it just undermines the interactive nature of video games.
The other downside of cutscenes is that they can be quite difficult to make, especially for indie developers, and especially if you’re going for a pre-rendered cutscene instead of one within the game’s existing engine or framework. How much of an issue this is depends on the developer – for some this is a deal-breaker, forcing them to choose another storytelling method, while for others it’s just another part of the development process.
Cutscenes can be a great storytelling method. They have the potential to really enhance a game. Just leave the action to the player for them to experience, and use the cutscenes for the storytelling gameplay can’t achieve.
Dialogue is so common in games as to be almost compulsory. At its most basic level, it can be used to communicate the player’s next objective: “I’ve lost my dog! Can you find him for me?” “You should head to the Forest Temple, you’ll find what you’re looking for there.” But its potential as an engaging storytelling tool is too often underused. Often, dialogue doesn’t reveal anything about the characters speaking it, to the point where, if you didn’t have the characters displayed on screen, it would be impossible to distinguish between one speaker and another, so similar are their styles.
In a medium as versatile as video games, though, dialogue is capable of so much more. Take for example the adventure game classic, The Secret of Monkey Island. The biggest thing that separated it from other contemporary adventure games was its witty storytelling, and most notably its dialogue. Every character had their own distinct personality, and the game was filled with hilarious one-liners. The Secret of Monkey Island‘s dialogue elevated it above a run-of-the-mill adventure game.
Games like The Secret of Monkey Island really showcase what can be done with well-written dialogue. It has potential to be a lot more than generic, “Go to place X and do thing Y”-type writing. Done properly, it can turn a forgettable game into a memorable one.
This is probably the rarest kind of storytelling, yet has potential to be one of the greatest. This is where, rather than hitting you over the head with story, the game instead places clues around the world for you to find and unravel the story for yourself. The original Half-Life, released in 1998, was really the pioneer of this storytelling type. Rather than using text blocks like many contemporary shooters, it instead let you uncover clues to the story through subtle hints in the game’s world, like an abandoned military radio or the corpse of a scientist in an alien cave. It felt like a living, breathing world that Gordon Freeman was a part of, rather than a carefully designed obstacle course meticulously crafted for the player.
The great thing about environmental storytelling is that it lets the player determine their level of immersion. Take the recent indie release Slender: The Arrival for example. The player can just progress quickly through, reaching the objectives and powering through the game in as little as an hour, and still have a good time. But if they take the time to look through the game’s environment, they can uncover a much deeper story hidden in the notes scattered around. Suddenly, it’s not just a game about looking for your missing friend. It’s about a woman who slowly loses her mind to the Slender Man, and about the sacrifices she and her friend “CR” make to escape. There’s even a little subplot about a missing child. The point is, whichever you play the game, it’s still fun and immersive – and damn scary. But it managed to tell a great story without any cutscenes, with little dialogue, and without shoving a block of text into the player’s face. That is storytelling at its finest.
Of course, environmental storytelling isn’t appropriate for all games. Some require the more direct styles offered by dialogue or cutscenes. And in most cases, games don’t rely on environmental storytelling alone, but rather use it to aid the other types they use. Even so, it’s still a very powerful method and can be used great effect.
So the question is: we have four main types of storytelling methods, but which is best? Well, none, really. Used properly, they can all be a great asset in your game, and can even be combined to great effect. Which ones you use depends on the type of game you’re making and the style you’re going for. Choosing the right method for your game can avoid boredom and monotony and make it an immersive, engaging experience for your players.
About the author:
StewartB is a friendly, helpful frequenter of the GMC. http://gmc.yoyogames.com/index.php?showuser=241734
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