Dang it, I’m getting one of these teased articles done!
I was there for the early days of video games. I remember not only when the manuals were the only place a video game’s story was being told, I remember when it was as simple as “here’s your goal, now here are the controls”. Then one day I saw this.
This game was the first time I saw what’s become known as “cutscenes”. Actually, that’s not true. Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man both have skits after a few levels while Jr. Pac-Man (a game I only saw once so I only just learned this) has a short story of forbidden love between a Pac and a Ghost, but the NES version of Ninja Gaiden is the first time I saw a game form a full-on story like this. As you play through the game you move the story forward with your victory.
Since that time the full potential of video games as a storytelling tool may or may not have been fully unlocked but various ways to do so have been uncovered. We’ll go over other, more interactive ways in later articles. I want to look at the more linear storytelling style and we can deal with sandboxes, moon logic, and decision trees another time. Let’s focus instead on getting to the next cutscene.
When it comes to integrating your story into a game a few factors have to be considered. First off you are making a game. That means you have to keep gameplay in mind. In this most basic form your players aren’t going to have control over the story so you need to make them feel like they are part of the story, that their actions may not alter the tale but are tied into it. In a game you are the character. The player has to feel like they’re living the life of that character. If you’re going to tell a linear narrative instead of an interactive one the player still has to feel like he or she is playing the role. You also have to make the story worth progressing through. Look at this compilation of clips from another NES ninja game, Wrath Of The Black Manta:
Compare that to any of the NES Ninja Gaiden games and you see how lacking the presentation is. Either your hassling the same goon numerous times and saving the same kid over and over or someone got really lazy. It’s one thing in gameplay because you have so little room but you can at least make it look like Black Manta is torturing the guy for information. And I’m not sure if his Master is talking to him over the phone, in the same room, or speaking telepathically to him during the game. Ignoring the fact that the letters are holding the player’s hand when it comes to finding secret levels (to the point that I don’t know why they even bothered) it only works in game logic, not the logic of the story. Granted a certain level of game logic is needed for power ups and a level that’s fun to play in but it should make some manner of sense to the story and the cinematics shouldn’t be screaming “THIS IS A VIDEO GAME YOU ARE PLAYING HERE’S SOME DIALOG THAT IS MORE INTERESTED IN GAME THAN STORY!”. It pulls the player out of the experience and makes me wonder why there the story is even in there. Just have a ninja fighting baddies and rescuing kids if you don’t care about the narrative, and this game clearly doesn’t.
I’ve seen some gamers complain about a linear narrative, even one that is good, because they think games should just be about the sidequests and character interactions and letting the player do what they want. I have nothing against those games but at the same time the linear story has quite a bit to offer as well. The designers do have to remember to find a good balance between gameplay and storytelling though. The Metal Gear franchise, especially the Metal Gear Solid stories I’m told is a good example of being more interested in the story sometimes than the gimmicks. If the player has to put the controller down…just make an animated movie. That’s the opposite of Wrath Of The Black Manta‘s mistake, where you clearly wanted to tell a story and the gameplay was an afterthought. Actually, that may not be accurate with the Metal Gears because I hear the gameplay is usually quite good, but Kojima apparently needs to find that balance between storytime and playtime.
I don’t care if video games are or aren’t “art” because I don’t care about such elitist things. I just care if the game play is good and in the case of games like this if the story is good and the two aren’t fighting for dominance in the experience. You can tell some good stories this way and make the players feel they’re part of those events while still telling a straight-through narrative. Now full interactive storytelling, that takes some extra work, and we’ll get into that in later installments, but this works too if you do it right.