Posts tagged: Lore

And Here Come the Aliens — Storytelling in Games

Why do games inevitably end with you shooting monsters, zombies or aliens, regardless of what the game was about from the beginning?

Game story design lacks some maturity, compared to other media. It seems to me that we’re too obsessed with the spectacular, or too afraid of not making a splash, that we violate one of the fundamental pieces of storytelling advice there is: keep the story believable.

The central concept in all great storytelling is the suspension of disbelief. We’re asking the viewer, reader or player to ignore all their preconceived notions about how a world works, and join you in your world for a bit. This can work as long as your story is compelling enough to keep them interested, and consistent enough that the world makes sense in the mind of the viewer, reader or player.

alienWhy, then, is it so common in games that start out with a fairly reasonable story, there inevitably seem to be aliens, zombies, super mutants, experimental super-soldiers or some similar monstrosity near the end? I’ve played through a fair number of games with this problem, and I’ve actually quit a fair number as well.

Some games have stories that aren’t exactly masterpieces, yet they still get smashed to pieces by this kind of move. One example of this would be Far Cry — not exactly known for it’s brilliant story, but I still lost my interest when the super-mutant-experiment-soldiers showed up.

Since actual good game stories are so few and far apart, story reviews tend to look favorably on anything that actually has a story.

Game story designers fall into this trap for several reasons. I think, first of all, that it’s a sign of a certain lack of maturity — we don’t take our stories seriously, don’t focus on them and thus we don’t think they can hold their own.

For me, the story adds so much to a game experience that it deserves to be treated better. Trust me, playing the single player campaign of something like Bad Company during development, before the story elements are in place, is but a pale shadow of the final product.

Our demands on gameplay and difficulty also makes this an easy trap to fall into. Adding more HP and weaponry to enemies only makes sense to a certain point, I guess, so in order to have an appropriately difficult grand finale, we throw in something supernatural. The funny thing about this is that many times, the same games have already shown themselves to not need this. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, for instance (which is an awesome game by the way) has both a story and difficulty measures good enough to stand on their own feet. It simply didn’t need monsters.

These thrown in monsters, mutants and aliens provide an opportunity to make something spectacular. However, the best moments I’ve had in gaming must be the ones that both made sense and were spectacular.

I hope game stories can move with time to the more mature, nuanced theme of telling a simple but powerful story in an interesting way that keeps me hooked. However, that requires us to respect the power of a story well told… among all our fancy graphics, powerful hardware and surround sound systems, we get to face the idea that perhaps the most important piece of the game shares more qualities with a good camp-fire story than with the tech labs that produced the chip we’re running.

What do you think about the state of stories in games? How would you like to see them improve?

Image credit: kevindooley on flickr

How to Destroy a Universe in Order to Make Money in 6 Easy Steps

The games industry is often accused of having a bad case of sequelitis. Most big games are sequels, or in some other way part of some franchise. I think it’s a bit simplistic to blame the industry for this — looking at sales and income, the games industry has understood (just as Hollywood has) that the way to make lots of money is to make a sequel. Not necessarily because it’s cheaper, but because that’s what people buy.

So having established that we’re in the business of making sequels (and yes, I am), we need to look at lore. With each sequel, there’s a new story, but also an extension of the universe that story takes place in. Fans of series don’t generally love the stories themselves — more often fans are in love with the universe. The magic that surrounds something like the Star Wars universe (or did, until the prequel movies were made) or Lord of the Rings stems from the depth of the universes they take place in.

It’s easy to forget this and only focus on the new story you’re trying to tell. Even if this succeeds, and even if you make a fair bit of money from it, you may be lessening the total value of the universe by breaking the lore.

So without further delay, I present 6 ways to easily spoil the magic and destroy a universe:

  1. Un-ending an end, or forced resurrection. This happens when the decision is made to make a sequel to a story that has been ended, thus altering the lore or coming up with convoluted ways to explain the miraculous continuation of a storyline that had been conclusively and definitely ended.The effect is that fans feel cheated and the value of the previous ending is reduced. Two good examples of this effect are the Terminator franchise un-ending of the end in Terminator 2, and the Alien: Resurrection movie.
  2. Accommodating a new target audience by changing the universe. This happens when a spinoff, sequel or prequel changes the universe in order to accommodate for a new target audience — often a childrens’ version of the series.A perfect example of this is how many Star Wars fans felt that the Star Wars universe was tainted by the introduction of children’s movie character Jar Jar Binks and elements like the Hutt Pod-race. The prequel movies undoubtedly made a healthy profit, but destroyed some of the Star Wars magic in the process, lessening the total value of the franchise.
  3. Not doing your research. This tends to happen when a universe changes hands, like a new author finishing a book series after the death of the original author, or a franchise being handed to a new games studio by a publisher. The new authors then make mistakes that lessen the credibility of the universe by simply not knowing or understanding some aspects of it.For instance, in the prequels to Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, an invention is used several thousand years before its invention in one of the original books of the series.
  4. Killing your core. Most universes are built up around some core occurrence. Star Trek is built up around the exploration of a vast mystical universe by crews on space ships, for instance. Removing the defining characteristic of your universe is a bad idea.This happened as the Wing Commander saga unexpectedly ended the war that was the core of the universe, removing the core component that had powered the lore. A few games were released after this, introducing a new enemy but the momentum of the universe had failed. Another good example of this is when an action movie was released based on the adventure series Mission: Impossible, even including a betrayal committed by the beloved protagonist of the series for good measure.
  5. Forgetting your core. Sometimes, what makes a series special is taken for granted during the production of a sequel, to the very point that it’s forgotten entirely. Games are especially open to this phenomenon — in the rush for technological innovation the heritage is somehow forgotten.Doom 3 is a good example of this. With all the cool dynamic lighting and shadows in focus, the game completely failed at following up on the style of the previous games. Instead, the gameplay degenerated into a form of technologically advanced “Boo!” with monsters appearing out of nowhere in rooms with blinking lights.
  6. Diluting your story. Charlie Jane Anders calls this “Being a story slut” — feeling the need to tell a lot of stories that may not fit in to the universe you’re telling them in. The end result is that the fans lose track of what the universe is all about.I’ll repeat Charlie’s example for this: The Matrix. By losing focus on the issues and story in the first movie, the entire Matrix universe is tainted by this dilution, losing some of its magic.

Often, these errors are immediately obvious to any fan. Why are not spotted and fixed?

Sometimes, the simple answer is that they’re accepted damage. For instance, if you want to make money out of a new Alien movie, you’ve accepted the fate of the lore the moment you started. This can happen because the franchise is in the hands of people who don’t care about the universe they’re extending, or because the people doing the sequels have simply lost track of the context for what they’re creating.

More often, though, I suspect the mistakes are the responsibility of a single person in charge, who either refuses to listen to others or who rules with such an iron fist that others don’t dare to sound the alarm. This appears to be the case of Jar Jar Binks, where the production team waved the red flag but were ignored.

So if you’re going to make a sequel, make it a good one — and don’t repeat these common mistakes. That way, you don’t have to be responsible for the next expression like “Jumping the Shark” or “Nuking the Fridge

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