Thursday, July 5, 2012

Videogame Storytelling and Plot Twists: Why We Love Plot Twists

German studio Yager Development’s new title Spec Ops: The Line has been making waves throughout the games industry. At first glance, it seems like a generic military shooter… but it gets trippy. It’s loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and sends players a message different from the standard “shoot things, you’re awesome, bro.” In stark contrast to most military shooters on the market today, Spec Ops actually makes players (gasp!) feel bad about killing hundreds of people.
The Line
Spec Ops: The Line
Why has this change of direction resonated with so many people? In the past decade as videogame storytelling has become slightly more adequate, plot twists have been an important tool for making the player reevaluate their role in the story. Look at any high-profile “arty” success over the past couple years: BioShockPortalBraid… they all feature prominent plot twists.
This is because games are still mostly about empowering players. Game mechanics define games, so it’s in developers’ best interest to give the player more abilities and give them more power within the mechanic as the storyline progresses. Most games feature a very linear narrative of “start out weak, get stronger, fight boss, get stronger, fight a stronger boss, repeat.” Sometimes, a game like Metroid will take away all the player’s powers near the beginning of the game, and then the plot revolves entirely around getting powers back.
This comes from the way we as an industry conceive of games. For the most part, the game mechanic is the first idea, and the story evolves around that mechanic. It’s a smart way to create a fitting storyline, but it’s also limiting. Story depends on gameplay, and never vice versa.

Dear Esther
We’re at the unfortunate stage where a “good story with subpar gameplay” is unacceptable, but “great gameplay with mediocre story” is a game we still embrace. Because of this, there’s no motivation for most developers to work on creating better stories–just worry about the gameplay and the story doesn’t matter! Of course, I firmly believe gameplay is integral to our medium, but we’ll never get to “great games with great stories” until we can conquer this fear of deep plotlines.
Because of games’ focus on mechanics and empowering players, games like Portal andBioShock stand out when they throw a wrench in that empowerment. Players want to feel competent and in control, and when we learn otherwise, we’re shocked. Encounters with characters like GLaDOS and Andrew Ryan make us rethink our role in the game world, and that affects us emotionally. Or look at a series like Half-Life; its story draws us in largely because the enigmatic G-Man reveals that even from the beginning of the game, we’re not in control.
But does this mean games HAVE to be this way to make an emotional impact on us? What about a game where the player never gains power in the first place?

The Stanley Parable
We can look at recent cult hits like The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther as titles where the player never has power, and never has the ability to gain any more. It’s great to see a few titles like this emerge, but of course, they’re still refined to low-budget independent productions. Will we ever see mainstream AAA titles do this?
Going one step further, I’d like to see a game where the player actually ends the game with LESS power than they began with. Perhaps, like Spec Ops, it begins as a cliché military shooter. You have to assassinate some foreign leader in a third-world country. But then some sort of natural disaster derails all your plans. Not an evil genius who the player can then take revenge on. Just a flood or a storm, and the player must simply survive. Without the guns they had before, without the superhuman physical abilities. Going from G.I. Joe to a refugee. When will we see that game?
Would players be unsatisfied to see a game where they end weaker than they began? If anything, this weakening would work to refine the game’s core mechanics, since players couldn’t rely on any superfluous power-ups or add-ons to their abilities.
It’s just a shame that game mechanics force video game storylines into rigidly uniform structures of increasing power. I hope one day we can see it in reverse.