Four games that handle great stories

Four games that handle great stories

Video game writing is still something of a misunderstood art form. Can’t you just pluck someone out of whatever breeding pool Michael Bay incubates his screen writers in? Surely telling a story is the same in any medium — you just call up some scruffy, caffeine-crazed underfed, and watch them work their dark art on your sprawling epic, right?

Hold your dismissive rhetorical tone, I’d say to me. It’s not quite that simple.
Not all writers have the flexibility to move from one medium to another. The switch from novels to comic books, for example, is one of the most brutal transitions. Writing for games is similar, but stranger still. You sometimes write a script for hundreds of people who are trying to help you out. You plot the beginning, middle and end, yet often the story is shaped by a structure that is defined by levels, maps and technological innovation. With this in mind, here are four games that handle story really well — and how they do it.

Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons

In this beautiful game by Starbreeze Studios, the design innovation is that you control two young brothers at the same time. A narrative designer’s job is to find ways to demonstrate what that means. When you make those two boys solve problems, cope with hardships, and attempt to address the loss at the centre of their story, what does it mean to the player to have simultaneous control over both? And how can you sculpt their relationship so that your player understands the two characters?

Ultimately, one of the best ways that Brothers shows its skill in narrative design is by hardly using words at all. It uses actions — or “verbs”: when the older brother chooses to interact with a person he might help them, when the younger brother interacts with him he might play a trick on them. Both interactions are initiated by the player but defined by character.

Journey

In the award-winning adventure from ThatGameCompany, the verbs of the game are always the same: press a button to jump and fly, press a button to sing, get cloth, or light a stone. This makes the story more about what the environment and score tell you: the bright, fizzy sands of the desert fluff up in front of you in the sun, the dark corridors where snake monsters lurk, the freezing, treacle-slow trek up a snow-dredged mountain … these are all emotions. The player feels them just by walking or jumping through the virtual landscape. In Journey there’s an optional, equally mute co-operative player who may join your experience via internet: sometimes it is a story of tragedy, as the other player leaves you to your lonely doom to go off alone. Or, they might jump and chime to you at every collectible, show you how to hide from every monstrous serpent, join you in the difficult press through the hopeless snow.

Half-Life

Returning to comics, the author Warren Ellis is an exceptional talent at contextualising plot within the opening two or three pages, often merely visually, without signposting it, which is a considerable challenge in video-game world building.

One of the most famous openings to a game is Half-Life, and it’s for a good reason: the team thought about how to introduce the player to a world, and how to make that world both intimidate and dangerous to the player, without having to spend a lot of money on cutscenes. So they put you on a rollercoaster carriage into the dark to show you how messed up commutes get in the near future.

Full Throttle

Dialogue can be one of the strongest elements in a game, something that will often save the whole thing from one or two key mistakes in other areas. The classic LucasArts adventure Full Throttle has one of the best opening lines of any video game ever made:
“Whenever I smell asphalt, I think of Maureen.”

This concise phrase, written by veteran game designer Tim Schafer, does many different things at once. At the mention of asphalt, the player knows they are dealing with characters whose lives are centred around roads. A lesser talent might well have gone for, “I’ve been around roads all my life,” for example, but that’s very boring and obvious. And not funny.

From this line, the player also understands that Maureen is a significant character in the story, perhaps a main character, or a character you must find.

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