The challenge of story-telling in games

WARNING: This post contains massive Red Dead Redemption spoilers!

There are days when I’m really glad I’m not a game designer, and today is one of them, because today I’m thinking about story-telling. Consider a novel or a movie, and more specifically, consider pacing. Most writers take you on a journey full of ups and downs, full of contrasts. The best way to convey an emotion is to preface it with some contrasting emotion. So when everything seems grim and suddenly something wonderful happens, you really feel that sense of joy. And vice versa.

Not in every case, of course. Some stories are just relentlessly joyful, or relentlessly grim. But usually we get variety.

But in games, that’s so hard! Gamers expect an intense experience from start to finish. At best they’ll forgive some slowness in the beginning of a game before things really get rolling, but once the plot is in motion we expect more, More, MORE, MORE!!!! Everything has to ramp up until some ultimate battle at the end.

Red Dead Redemption tries to tell a richer story. [Here come the spoilers.] When you finish the plot and kill the dude you’ve been hunting throughout the game, you’ll expect the credits to roll. Hell, there’s even a great “end of the game” song that plays as you ride off to your homestead to re-unite with your wife and kid. It feels great!

Then you get there…and the game doesn’t end. Now you’ve got more missions doing mundane things like herding cattle or teaching your son to hunt. This goes on for a while and compared to earlier in the game, the pace is sedate. I might even go so far as to call it boring.

And then, the last loose end gets tied up. The US Army comes gunning for John Marston. It’s a scene very very reminiscent of the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He’s stalled his attackers long enough for wife and son to get away, and now he’s holed up in the barn. He realizes there’s only one way this is going to end. Only one way for his wife and child to be free. He has to die. He bursts out of the barn and there’s.. I dunno, 50 enemies, and he’s gunned down.

For me it was a real “oh….shit” kind of moment. I kept wondering how he was going to make it through. (After all, I has side quests to finish!) But he doesn’t. Instead, we fast forward a few years and step into the boots of Jack, his son, now turned gunslinger and going after the man who killed his father.

Anyway, so that’s the plot of Red Dead Redemption. Marston’s death wouldn’t have the same impact if you hadn’t just spent 30 minutes doing these mundane quests where you’re just taking care of your family and your farm. Marston is content at last, and just wants to be left alone. We get that. But the government agent who’d been pulling his strings all this time just can’t have Marston hanging around, knowing what he knows.

The problem is, gamers don’t like those mundane quests! We’re rushing to finish the game; we’ve got 4 more on our “to play” pile that we want to get to. We’re pumped up on adrenaline from taking out the last boss…and now you want us to herd cattle?! Are you crazy?

So how does a game designer give the player that breathing space he needs to settle down, so that the next plot point has the impact the designer is going for, without making the game play boring? And wow, how much testing did they do in RDR so that the maximum number of people get lulled into that sense of complacency before the last battle. Put too many mundane quests in and people will just quit. Put too few in and the sudden switch back to death and combat won’t have the same impact.

I have a friend at work who thought RDR had the ‘dumbest, worst ending’ of any game he’d played. I also know he was really rushing to finish the game, and I think that had some impact?

To me, Red Dead Redemption’s story was amazing. I was thinking about it for weeks after finishing. Generally I finish a game and move on, but RDR has stuck with me the same way a good movie or book would. I’d love to see more games with this kind of storytelling, but I can see how hard it is to make a game like this, and how good the rest of the game has to be in order for gamers to stick with you through the slow bits.

Much easier to design a game based around killing stronger and stronger enemies until finally you kill the strongest enemy, then cut to the credits.

Red Dead Redemption shows us that games can be so much more than a shooting gallery, if we’re only willing to let them be.

2 thoughts on “The challenge of story-telling in games

  1. Am placing my hopes on Halo Reach to having a decent storyline. Halo ODST was ok but didn’t like the story split via the various characters you take control of.

    I avoided the spoilers in your piece(just – hehe) as I have yet to complete RDR. But reading between the lines, I’ll know it would be a mistake for me to leave it that way.

  2. Its amazing how fast many players burn through these games. For example LOTRO just had a content update and one guy is burning thru it like mad. He has a guide that he is using to find things instead of reading the not too cryptic clues to find them on his own. Thats part of the game and the story behind the reason these items are scattered throughout Endewaith holds no interest for this player what-so-ever. He just needs to finish as fast as he can by reading a guide. Now he will be complaining in two weeks about the lack of new content in the game.

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