Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Telling a story in a game.

Flicking through various game sites such as Eurogamer, Escapist, 1up, etc. it seems that the discussion has turned to game stories and how to a large extent they suck. This confluence of discussion may be arising because at last it's becoming difficult to distract us with the shiny, shiny graphics and we're beginning to notice that the entire premise for us to be running through these worlds is flimsier than a piece of wet tissue paper.

For the most part games didn't bother with a story, in fact early games didn't need one at all beyond "Shoot the baddies", but what is interesting is how this premise still exists even within modern games that have bothered to craft a story-line.

Take FEAR and its sequel for instance. It's possible to play that game and not pick up a single intel document and to switch the game language to Klingon and still be able to play it. You move forward shoot anything that moves, pick up the shiny, and move on again. No need to consider telethestic super-soldiers and pregnant 8-year olds. The same for Killzone2, who cares why I'm doing this the game says jump and I ask in which direction.

On the other hand you get games like Deus Ex or Bioshock they're still linear go here do that type of games, but you're drawn into the storyline; you want to know why you're doing this and in some cases that knowledge affects your actions.

So why is this happening. Well as many other commentators point out games draw inspiration from films and books; no problem there except such media is static. In Alien John Hurt is going to bend over an egg every time, in Lord of the Rings the Nazgul will always attack on that hill. Imaging though on your second watching of Alien John Hurt enters the egg area, stops and says "I don't like this, let's go back to the ship and play strip poker"; imagine if Frodo had decided to make a stand against the Nazgul in Bree. Not going to happen in a film or book, but in a game there's nothing stopping you from doing this.

Well there is and it's the dreaded cut-scene. You playing Ripley step into the area and you get a cut-scene with John looking at an egg. In LotR when the Nazgul arrive in Bree the game disables your weapons.

Oh there are ways around this using scripted events, as you approach the room in Alien you see John at the far side peering at an egg with nothing you can do to stop them; trouble is you have to be looking that way to see it. That's the problem with FEAR, lots of things going on but you have to be looking in the right direction to have seen it and often you're not.

In media terms FEAR and Killzone2 are films, lot's of spectacle that you can't do anything about; Bioshock is a novel. Still scripted but you want to read it.

But all of my examples are linear games what about the big current thing - sand-box games? If I can go anywhere I like at any time surely that forces out a lot of the problems? Nope Fallout3, FarCry2, Dragon Age:Origins, even the superlative InFamous all suffer from a different fault.

A fine example occurred during my playing of Dragon Age. I'd chopped up the hordes of undead in Redcliffe Castle and confronted the boss, who promptly ran off. All the survivors looked to me and asked what I was going to do about it. My answer was to ask the Mages at the Circle Tower. So off I went. In game terms the travel time was probably two weeks. Arriving I found the Tower was in trouble and I had to bash my way through. Successful I asked the mages for help and they sent a delegation to the Castle. I then decided to go to the village to do some shopping, then to a caravan site, a battleground, got ambushed twice, then to the forest and finally back to the castle where the survivors were still standing there waiting for me to solve the problem with the boss sulking upstairs.

And that's the problem - time only exists where I am. Oh sure complete a major quest and it might trigger something elsewhere to activate, but by and large I can leave a quest midway through and spend game-months wandering around before returning to find it in exactly the same state it was before.

And that's the case for every sand-box game I've seen out there.

Imagine instead that after emerging from my bunker I have a choice - turn left and find a village being attacked by slavers, or turn right and find a man dying from an animal attack. As it stands I can turn left help the village and then head back and save the guy. So now picture me turning left, helping the village and then heading back and finding the man dead of his wounds. Imagine me turning right helping the man then heading back and finding a deserted village.

In computer terms there's little to prevent this - each area loads and tests for a flag (slavers/slaver camp destroyed) and the time. Between 0-5 minutes the slavers haven't got there, 5-10 and they're attacking, 10 onwards the village is devastated. If I hang around early the slavers start to attack and I can help, or I come in the middle of the attack and drive them off. Either way the flag is set that the village is now safe.

Unless you follow the exact same path each time the game will be different every time you play. So how about it developers?


Orphi said...

Zero Punctuation keeps babbling on about this… What the hell is a “sandbox”??

Also, as for making games more realistic, there is one small problem: In reality, if Dr Freeman really was at ground-zero when an interdimensional portal opened and alien hordes teleported in and massacred most of the human race… Gordon wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting out alive!

But that wasn't be a very fun game, now would it?

Almost every game I've ever seen, if you did this in the real world, you wouldn't last 10 seconds. In Far Cry, one guy exterminates an entire army of hardened mercinaries and a legion of genetically-engineered monsters. Er, yeah, right!

Similarly, if you had to save the world in a freeform way like you describe, you would never ever be able to be in enough places at once to make the slightest scrap of difference. I'm guessing that wouldn't be very entertaining.

FlipC said...

A sandbox game is an open-world one. Instead of being hustled down corridors or jungle paths to reach the objective you can roam around and do what you like. Fallout3 is a good example of this. In theory you can walk directly to a particular Vault, save your father, travel to the lab site, head to another vault, get captured, escape and go straight back to the lab. Except you can also decide to rescue those kids, or deliver that letter, or just wander the wasteland and see how many raiders you can shoot in the head.

You can play the game without touching any of the objectives you're supposed to be doing, that's a sandbox game.

Anyway you're right there's always a degree of fantasy in a game to allow you to play it (except for Demon's Souls apparently). As for a free-from objective there's still structure. Let's say you need a keycard to open a door; if you get to town X at a certain time the owner is also there and can be quietly knocked out and the card taken. Wait too long and he'll head back to his armed camp. Still possible to get the card, just more difficult.

Same with the examples I give. Rescue the man and he'll tell you about a cache of heavy-weapons, save the town and you get somewhere to rest and buy equipment - which do you pick? Neither are necessary to complete the game, just means you have to approach it in a different way depending on your actions.