Game and Narrative Designer, John Karnay, challenged our ‘What makes a Game Story good or bad?’ LinkedIn group to with this deceptively simple and nefariously slippery question.
John Karnay - “What is your favourite game storyline of all time? Pick one game (only one) and give 3 reasons why it stands out as your favorite story of all time. Let's see if we can isolate the awesome story gene.”
I’ve looked back over the staggering 117 comments that resulted from John’s provocative query and am endeavouring to isolate and extract the “awesome story genes”.
First up, here are all the games that got a favourable mention throughout the discussion.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Gabriel Knight Sries
System Shock 2
Mass Effect 2 (and 1&3)
The Walking Dead
Oblicion: Shivering Isles
Max Payne 1&2
Red Dead Redemption
Knights of the Old Republic
Final Fantasy 7 (and 8-10)
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
Last of Us
Beyond Good and Evil
Deus Ex 1
To the Moon
All fantastic games in their own rights. All ground-breaking on the Narrative Design front. Impossible (and pointless) to pick a ‘winner’ from this lot. So what I’ve focused on instead are the common threads throughout the discussion, the yarn that’ll get us out of this maze.
And I only have enough space in this post to discuss one of those threads.
“Characters. Every character in the game is iconic regardless of the plot points.” John Karnay is talking about the Gabriel Knight series here.
A similar mention is made by Michael Cipriano of SHODAN from System Shock 2. “SHODAN is still, to me anyway, the best villain in games and in most mediums.”
In both cases above, dialogue and voice acting are cited as key elements in making the characters memorable and effective.
Dialogue received another champion in Harald Hagen. “I hadn't seen such visually well-realized characters again until I got to The Last Of Us last year (which, incidentally, ties Red Dead Redemption at first place), as well as a reverence toward silence during dialogue. The cutscenes were pure bliss, and not only for voice-acting. Devs weren't afraid to restrain words from invading quiet moments, from slaughtering subtext.”
So clearly well-written, well-performed dialogue has a profound and lasting effect on our appreciation of a game’s story.
Then Kevin Matsuoko comes in with, “Every character was unique and had their own side quests which let us know more about them.” He’s talking about Shadow Hearts but we can wave this comment as a flag for all games to take notice of.
Quests and side-quests should always be driven by what the NPCs want, not what the game wants the NPCs to want. Essentially it's about having everything in the game MATTER to the characters involved. Why bother with goblin raids that are an 'irritation' to the NPCs in the village. No-one risks their lives for an irritation. But if someone's livelihood has been devastated by these opportunistic goblins, or their friends enslaved, then it gets 'poysonel'!
John Karnay - “One of my favorite things, stylistically, is developing realistic friendships and relationships between characters through realistic dialogue.” John is thinking of Mass Effect 2 when he says this. And Ivan Atanassov backs him up with an insight into the world of Fallout. “NPC have relationships between each other. Your actions can change their lives (even if it is with a delayed effect).”
Nik Blahunka then joined the ‘character party’ with this comment on ‘character consistency’ in ‘The Walking Dead’. “What stuck out is the strong pairing of character function, and character behavior and motivation.” With regards to the game’s ‘little girl character’, Clementine... “Clementine's function is obvious, she's the motivation and the obstacle. She could have been a complication later in the story simply because she's a child, but they didn't just lean on her function here. She became a complication because she was manipulated, which fits her function as obstacle. It was clear Clementine was smart, but still the team could have decided to say "She's a kid, kids can be tricked." and left it at that. Instead a great deal of care was put into how she was manipulated, and we're shown just enough to not only understand why she made the decisions she did, we also get a deeper understanding of who she is and how wrong we've been about her inner life.”
Johnathan Gronli reinforces the importance of ‘deep characterization’ with mention of Alan Wake (“Strong characters, regardless of how troped many of them are due to the nature of the story.”) and The Walking Dead (The characters are well defined, but also introduce a bit of a zero sum game where you can't please everyone.”).
Robert Kabwe has similar feelings when it comes to Beyond Good and Evil. “Well written characters that make you feel like part of a group.” As does Rajeev J regarding Bioshock. “Compelling characters - From Ryan to Booker, amazing, believable and ultimately tragic characters.”
And finally, Stefan Hall hammered home just how important we deem having some sort of relationship with the NPCs of a game. “How much was I affected by MP2? I dreamt of Mona Sax. A lot. Sigh.”
That’s the way we need to be feeling about our video game NPCs.
We need to want to listen to them.
With carefully crafted scripts that focus as much on what’s not said as what is said, and quality voice acting, we’ll hang on an NPC’s every word.
We need to feel as if NPCs are real people.
NPCs must have their own lives outside of our interactions with them. They should have relationships with and attitudes to other NPCs. And most importantly, they have to have real, human wants and needs!
We, the player, need to know that we matter to the NPCs.
Whether they’re making us feel like we’re part of the team or they’re using us for their own selfish ends, we need to feel like we make a difference in their lives. That’s the ‘secret sauce’ of the NPC/Player relationship. If they care about us then we’re much more likely to care about them!
There we have it, everyone! Awesome Story Gene 1 extracted.
And it’s name is Deep Characterization!