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A Multiplayer Melee on Video Games Storylines and Emotional Subtexts

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July 13, 2006 3:44:06 PM

Rob and Aaron are at it again. This time, the two editors argue over the worth of complex storylines and emotional content in today\'s games; Aaron thinks such attempts are useless, while Rob believes even average stories add something to the game experience. Let\'s hope this debate doesn\'t descend into nipple-twisting and head-butting.
July 13, 2006 4:59:05 PM

Sure, some people won't care for any storylines. They are probably the same people who are 90% entertained by adrenaline and 10% by the box art.

Not sure how it could be argued that 100% of the entertainment value of all games should be adrenaline based. A proper storyline gives the player a short rest between levels and a means to help the action flow from one scene to the next. And yes, when done right an additional form of entertainment which is the whole reason we are playing in the first place. If you want a 100% adrenaline fix then why are you sitting at a computer desk? Go join the marines, or erase your wife's favorite show from the TiVo or something.

Of course the danger with storylines and emotional content is when it is particularly bad and/or detracts from the flow of the game. Yeah, in those cases it should be left out. But even then, something is needed to help explain what's going on in the game...

Anyway I thought HL2-EP1 was great, in my opinion a great balance of SL and EC vs. action. Let's just have more skin next time plz.

-Deuce-
July 13, 2006 5:14:35 PM

quite frankly, that is why there are both types of games out there. The doom/UT style that has a story purely to explain the design, and you just kill anything that moves. Then the HL/MaxPayne style that has the story to flesh out the experience and give "more".

They will always be there, and have always been. Even before graphics, in text based games there was story to give you the whole package... and then there was tic-tac-toe. (or whatever) pong vs d&d

Not a big deal that we have both, they are not mutually exclusive.
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July 13, 2006 5:20:25 PM

Aaron seems to be forgetting that sotrylines are an important part of mission-based games. They are what ties one mission into another, and gives them a sense of purpose. Otherwise, the player is simply engaging in a series of unrelated and bizarre tasks.

For example, imagine Grand Theft Auto without a storyline:

Mission1: assasinate some guy.
Why?
Just because.

Mission 2: Break into somewhere and steal something.
Why?
Just because.

End of missions: game over.
Why?
Just because.


How lame would that be? Sure, the stories are cliched - but they give a game structure.
July 13, 2006 6:17:48 PM

As a consumer, I can say that I appreciate both Story-rich games like Knights of the Old Republic and Adrenaline Rush online-multiplayer games like Unreal Tournament. They both have exceptional replay value... but for different reasons.

The article seems like some guys plea to the developer community for more "Unreal Tournament" like games. (ie: games with no plot that just act as a foundation for online, brainless fragging and adrenaline rushes).

Like any guy, I like blowing things up, but I cant say I agree with the plea. It takes time and practice to learn an engines physics, multiplayer maps and weapon styles. I purchase about 1 (at most 2) FPS's a year so that I can actually be good at them.

If there were a dozen more titles out there like Unreal Tournament... I wouldn't have time for them. And all it would really do is dilute the community so there would be less people online for any specific game title to frag.

With that said, story rich games are like interactive movies. Mr. "Me like Blow things up" doesn't have to buy them if he doesn't want to... but there aren't enough of them. Most titles provide about 40 hours of game play. (80 to 120 if it is RPG with replay potential): I could easily buy 8 of these a year... but they are just not out there. I look forward to the day when new game releases are every week like movies are today in theaters.
July 13, 2006 6:30:25 PM

I mean come on people, while reading that article I was sure the Halo series would get brought up as a point to how well a storyline adds to a game, or Metal Gear Solid or even Final Fantasy 7. Yes, i realize this is just 3 games of literally thousands and most are crap but these storyline drives the gameplay. just my 1 cent though.
July 13, 2006 6:36:06 PM

Is it just me or does F.E.A.R. represent what Rob was talking about in his last paragraph perfectly? Some of the most amazing graphics to date, a wide range of weapons each probably characteristically all a first person shooter needs (shotgun, sniper, basic assault rifle, pistol), gameplay that intrigues even veteran first person shooter players, all of that coupled with a story line that keeps the gamer interested, curious, and compelled to either pee their pants or rough it out and come out on top to only be begging for more. If games are going in the direction of F.E.A.R. then I don't have to many worries about the future when looking into story vs. gameplay.
July 13, 2006 6:52:06 PM

Quote:
quite frankly, that is why there are both types of games out there


I'd have to whole heartedly agree with that, sojrner. It's the same as every other entertainment media. Some are fun because they are bassicly fluff (no real content, just game-play) and some are fun because they have rich and detailed storylines. While I agree that the Half-Life and Half-Life 2 examples are far from heart wrenching examples of user emotional involvement, I believe there are plenty of games that plenty of people have connected with BECAUSE of their story lines.

Some entries (not all) of the Final Fantasy series come to mind, such as FF7, or FF2 (Japan release). And there's also the wonderfuly complex Metal Gear Solid series, about which my only complaint is that in order to truly get the whole picture, you need to play/watch every game regardless of the platform it is released on, or spend hours hunting down the fragments you have missed across the internets.

Some people will pick up and play Smash TV because it's fun to shoot things and see how long you can last, and some will pick up MGS because they legitimately want to know what happens next.

Personaly, I find great value in both, because while I enjoy a good plot, sometimes I just want to get home and blow some stuff up!
July 13, 2006 6:56:45 PM

Quote:
Yes, i realize this is just 3 games of literally thousands and most are crap but these storyline drives the gameplay. just my 1 cent though.


That's another good point to touch on, actually. Developers are increasingly going for quantity over quality, and I think this is something just about everyone can agree with. Sadly, this isn't just a game production trend either. The same can be said for just about every industry and you must increasingly search harder and harder for the better products among the craptacular ones.

Does this mean they don't exist? Ofcourse not, examples have been listed and undoubtedly more are to come, it just means that if at first you don't succeed, try it again. Maybe with god mode enabled. Unlimited ammo never hurt either.
July 14, 2006 3:15:02 AM

I don't think that any two people can be so polarized on as many issues as these two(Rob Aron). They sound like a Republican and Democrat stuck in the same room. That's why I don't like these articles staged from the beginning for the purpose of feedback. But if it works don't fix it.

Well to comment on your article. I would have to say that until they are going to make stories a little better they shouldn't half ass it. They should put in filler story or just go for the gold and bring in an excellent writing team. Not the typical cliche this far then throw in a twist and still pay enough to make it not worth it. But then I am not a compromise type of guy. Unless it comes to computer hardware. I am usually go big or go home.
July 14, 2006 4:27:52 AM

Is seems assumed that the only way to turn mindless running around and killing stuff is to add a story line. However, I think there are other ways to provide emotional depth into a game.

Take Black & White for example. You get yourself a side-kick and look after it. Given that enough effort is invested in your character you will get emotionally attached to it. My son plays "Runescape" for hours and hours, dressing up his character with new shields and matching helmet. Emotional depth occurs when your B&W side-kick character get's hurt and dies, when elements you build up in a game are taken from you.

Emotional depth can also achieved in multi player games where you interact with real humans while you build your own story. I think yet have to see what can be achieved by placing the user in a truely interactive plot building an emotional connection with the surroundings and thus care when it is affected in some way and of course be happy when such dangers are averted.
July 14, 2006 2:18:26 PM

I'm with Rob on this one - the games that I find most enjoyable are the ones with a depth of story and a character I can identify with. Rob is dead on with Max Payne, and allow me to throw in the No One Lives Forever series as well. These games rocked (and are ones I'll still dust off and play every year or so) precisely because you can connect with their protagonists - you get pulled into the game in ways that Doom and UT could never achieve. I enjoyed those games for different reasons, but I find I don't go back to them the same way I do to games with a great story.

A point not made about pauses in games like Max Payne is that they give you a chance to breathe, then ratchet the adrenaline back up, which is far more exciting to me than unrelenting carnage. Take Serious Sam for example - mindless, blow up aliens in mass quantities fun, but after an hour or two I'm done, bored, and looking for something deeper. I played both MP games pretty much straight through, only pausing to prevent unwanted...ummm...leakage. Great gameplay is necessary for any game I purchase, but to be truly great it needs to have that extra story dimension that sucks me back in...

edit for typos
July 14, 2006 6:35:03 PM

Quote:
I don't think that any two people can be so polarized on as many issues as these two(Rob Aron). They sound like a Republican and Democrat stuck in the same room. That's why I don't like these articles staged from the beginning for the purpose of feedback. But if it works don't fix it.


Dstigue, I can assure you these debates are not "staged." In fact, these columns grew out of debates that Aaron and I were having with each via e-mail and IM. We tend to argue a lot, that's all. Honestly, would this Melees be that good if we were simply acting the parts and didn't really feel passionately about our opinions? Honestly, we're good writers, but we're not that good. Or at least, Aaron isn't...
July 14, 2006 6:40:36 PM

staged or not, I enjoy the points and like the style. It is how I argue w/ friends all the time. keep it up, rock on.
July 14, 2006 7:27:37 PM

Quote:
Honestly, we're good writers, but we're not that good. Or at least, Aaron isn't...

W*nker.



Aaron
July 15, 2006 1:53:44 AM

I prefer there being something to pull you into the gameplay, the gameplay is still the important part of the game, but you still need something to pull you in.

A story is just one way of doing that. Eg, in most cases the textures of a game have no real bearing on the game play, everything could be flat shaded... But that wont pull you in as much, and you are not going to get as much out of the game as you otherwise could.

For me this is how Doom 1/2 pulled you in, it had a basic story to serve the purpose of providing the motive of your character, it then backed this up with inventive design, these came together with the gameplay to pull you in.

However Doom 3 comes along and tries the same thing differently, it adds more story element and alters the gameplay and design element (in this case making the levels more ummm realistic in a sense!?), and this worked wonders for me to begin with, it freaked me out and was involving (even if the gameplay imo wasn't as good as the originals)...
But the effect de-railed when the story just got silly and they tried to add too much narrative, in this case the atmosphere could have been preserved a lot better if they hadn't have tried so hard with the story and instead stuck to good design and gameplay.

What I'm trying to say is the story isn't the only way or even always the best way of immersing the player in the game. it is just one tool of many to create a rounded fun game.
July 15, 2006 6:53:38 AM

I very much prefer story-driven games like the adventure games of the 90's. However, it is true that they don't sell well now and it through no fault of their own. The guilty ones are the graphics. With the current state of technology, it's impossible to create deep emotional involvement. Game graphics are just too lame, right now.

It's impossible to get really attached with a character when the animation is as bad as in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and game graphics have not even reached that level!

There's a reason why good actors get paid millions: bad acting can destroy any hope for emotional attachment to a story. That's what happened in HL2E1 (and GK3 :'(  ). Some people think that great voice acting can disguise sub-par character acting, but it can't.

In the 90s (and in Japan), story driven games could be successful because 2D graphics were mature enough to deliver compelling characters. But 2D graphics are old technology and the all-wise mass will not buy an old tech like that, and 3D graphics are still not up to the task.

When video cards can render 10 Gollums in real time, story-driven games will rise again.
July 16, 2006 9:40:17 PM

Is it me, or did you guys completely skip Deus Ex? :)  I got some emotional attatchment out of that game really, especially at the end.

The arguments seem staged (for Rob to win), because Aaron plays the antagonist because he's a ornery b'tard, and likes to attempt to provoke Rob into a pissy fit by taking up his original thought in a solely fanatically narrow stance, and Rob always turns it around replies with everything logically, admitting to the flaws early on and re-defining what Aaron really hates, and what he should like.

Back to Deus Ex... watching the interviews, the whole team was really divided between making a very cool expansive adventure shooter, and a deep story adventure. They eventually realized it was to be both, having a rather nice story line to compliment the many cool shooter, puzzle, and adventure aspects. Deus Ex would have been a 2 1/2-out-of-5 star game if it wasn't for the story, which was great for a video game in my opinion. Probably one of the best combinations of first person shooter/adventure with a decent story.

Aaron is right, there's a lot of crap stories out there that sometimes you just laugh at how sickening and degrading insult it is to gamers... However, it really comes down to how dedicated the dev team is to what aspects. If you're gonna attempt at emotional subtext, pay out the butt and do it right So we can have Aaron eat his words and go home crying. When making a friggen sandwich, you don't relish on dogcrap so you have more sandwich, you put in the ingredients you like and you enjoy it.

I play lots of RPGs, so I love my story, since that's what they're based off of essentially (For god sakes, if someone says we play RPGs for the less-interactive gameplay just to watch out numbers rise, I'm gonna whoop them a good one). However, drama does get a bit old for me, and I go out and ream someone's ass at DOTA or BF2.

- Beau
July 17, 2006 12:08:24 AM

Best games I've ever played:

System Shock
System Shock 2
Deus Ex
Baldur's Gate Series.

That should say enough. The best, most memorable, most replayable games for me are the ones with deep storylines, that keep me involved like a good book. I get bored with games very easily now, and can only stand half an hour, tops, of shooting things up with no purpose. I need a story to keep me interested.
July 17, 2006 2:06:17 AM

im not sure if you noticed, but that screenshot was NOT OCARINA OF TIME..

you used an screenshot of the "THE WIND WAKER"
July 17, 2006 8:37:37 AM

There are games that enjoy a barren storyline - Painkiller is definitely fitting into the 'blew'em up till it rains blood' and has a very minimal storyline (guy gets sent to the shores of Hell to clean up the place, if he fails the world is lost, if he wins he gets his wife back)...
FEAR was supposed to be an interactive horror movie with somewhat innovative gameplay (you never knew when an illusion would interrupt your fun and make you pee your pants), but I found it to rapidly degenerate into a 'kill'em all and blast the girl' interrupted by increasingly annoying illusions.

Up till now, I've never enjoyed a game as much as I did Final Fantasy 7: the storyline(s) would take 12 hours to relate, it has comedy, tragedy, surprises, romance and hidden stories - well not so hidden anymore - building an entire world the player can integrate and relate to. All this, eventhough it has now really crappy graphics (I'm using a few mods for my PC edition, it increases enjoyment quite a lot to use high-res models during normal gameplay for example) and is difficult to make run. Still, for a turn-based adventure game, the adrenaline one feels when executing one of the last Limit Breaks is quite something (who didn't feel a thrill when unleashing Cloud's Omnislash or Barrett's AngerMax on an opponent?)

This doesn't stop me from enjoying a good slice of mindless action: if you can run it on your machine, give Chromium BSU a try. Storyline fits on a single line, but for a scroller it is pretty inventive.
July 17, 2006 4:43:37 PM

Quote:
im not sure if you noticed, but that screenshot was NOT OCARINA OF TIME..

you used an screenshot of the "THE WIND WAKER"

See, I told you he was a wa... ohh I'm sorry Rob, didn't see you there.


¬_¬
July 17, 2006 9:12:43 PM

Some games absolutely require a story. The fact that most of them are terrible doesn't mean that developers should just give up. I thought F.E.A.R. worked pretty darn well. I too would love to see something like Call of Duty with an actual storyline and characters.

Games right now are where movies were in the early part of the century. If movie producers decided that movies didn't need to evolve, we'd still be watching silent one reel shorts. Eventually someone will create a game with an original characters and a powerful storyline. It's a tough balance, interactivity and narrative, but just because no one's pulled it off yet, doesn't mean it can't be done.
July 18, 2006 8:35:08 AM

true - Ocarina of Time was graphically nice and very innovative (you had to live the same three days over and over), while Wind Walker was considered too childish and a cell shading abuse. And the screen cap was indeed from Wind Walker - Ocarina of Time used Gouraud shading.
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