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Why Video Game Stories are "Stupid"

Discussion in 'General Gaming' started by fastpunk, Mar 24, 2008.

  1. fastpunk Arbiter

    fastpunk
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    Heads up! Interesting article heading your way!

    This is basically an article about storytelling in Bioshock... but with implications for all story-centered games. Ken Levine speaks bluntly (as usual) and serves up this wonderful line, which imho, speaks volumes about the mentality of developers and consumers alike.

    Go read the whole thing here:

    http://www.tomsgames.com/us/2008/03/24/ken_levine_on_story/
     
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  2. kingcomrade Kingcomrade Edgy

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    Sounds pretty stupid, also sounds like you're screwing over the people who like story exposition.
     
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  3. psycojester Arbiter

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    Sounds like this would be the perfect time to point out the failure of the free market.
     
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  4. kingcomrade Kingcomrade Edgy

    kingcomrade
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    :(
     
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  5. Human Shield Augur

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    I was debating buying Bioshock but hearing them speak proudly of how skilled they are at dumbing things down I mite seek alternative means.
     
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  6. DarkUnderlord Professional Throne Sitter

    DarkUnderlord
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    ... and yet Myst, with its three books and pages and pages of backstory, sold more copies than BioShock can ever hope to sell.
     
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  7. Pussycat669 Liturgist

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    I guess it sounds better than 'Basically, we did the same as in System Shock 2' though.
     
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  8. Annonchinil Scholar

    Annonchinil
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    Bioshock and Mass Effect won most of the story of the year awards from the media. I don't trust Ken though, the part where you had to become a big daddy was one of the worst parts of the game, but I did loose interest in the game after Arcadia and begin to play just to beat it.
     
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  9. Section8 Erudite

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    If nothing else, that sort of comment is testament to the "you idiots are not worth the effort" argument. The fact that the gaming media are willing to give out sloppy blowjobs at the drop of the hat isn't going to inspire someone to put in hard work for critical praise. Why strive for greatness when the gaming media rewards mediocrity, and so many gamers ape those very same opinions because it's easier than forming their own?

    Sensible statement/question. There's a pretty simple answer - involve the player. The one thing you can be sure of when a player fires up your game - they want to play it. So why the fuck would a developer try to delay that with a bunch of narrative? No matter how good it is, you've basically made the player an enemy of the narrative because it's getting in the way them actually playing the game. And since we're talking about the very beginning, then chances are, your storytellers want to dump a huge amount of critical exposition on the player - who just wants to skip it and get on with the game.

    Duh. Don't force the player to watch or read your story. Lay it out for them and let them explore it themselves. If the player isn't engrossed in what's going on around them, then there's very little hope they'll feel a part of it.

    This doesn't feel adequately explained to me. The point should have been - "Don't give your players a history lesson." There's nothing wrong with details, though obviously you don't want to be trying to force decades worth of details on the player. But very important - just because those details aren't relevant to the immediate narrative, doesn't make them irrelevant.

    Just like when someone asks you to say a bit about yourself - you give your current details. What you do for a living, what you do for fun, etc. You don't give them your life story. But that doesn't make your history irrelevant. It's responsible for you being who you are today. It's always there in the background, and someone will be interested, so you can't just forget about it.

    If somebody asks you about your childhood and you spout off some guff like "details are boring", then they'll think you're a shallow idiot. Same goes for a gameworld and the stories that stem from it. If your gameworld seems to only exist in the now, then it's a failure. However...

    I think it's more the "journo" not getting it, rather than Levine himself. The New Year's Eve riots are not "removed [...] from the narrative". They're an integral part of it. The player doesn't have to be johnny on the spot for everything that happens, and in the case of elaborately scripted events, it can be better for the player to simply hear about them and use their imagination to picture it in a more effective manner than you could ever portray it.

    This was always a great strength of the System Shock's, but I resent some of the implications here. First of all, the idea that a gamer who is more interested in the game than having a story thrust upon them is someone who "just wants to blow stuff up". I hate cutscenes, big chunks of text, monologues, in-game books and NPCs with some kind of magic key that makes them able to lock you in a room while they spout off a bunch of bullshit and only unlock the way forward when they're done. I'm looking at you Miss Vance.

    The point is, I'm a pretty hardcore gamer, and I don't want non-interactive exposition because that's what I get from entertainment media outside of gaming. I don't want to "just blow stuff up", I want an interactive experience. And that's why audio logs work so well. You listen to them while you play. Pretty fucking simple, really. Half-Life 2 had some similar storytelling methods, like the huge propaganda screens, background conversations and so forth, but it also had a whole bunch of bits that might as well have been cutscenes. Episode 1 in particular was bad for this.

    And also - the story shouldn't be considered "optional", it just should be non-invasive. If you make the (fair) assumption that there are players who won't go out of their way for the story, that doesn't necessarily mean they won't enjoy or at least pick up on it if it's presented to them in ways that don't interrupt their play.

    This I thought was interesting. Even though it seems very simple on the surface, this is pretty sensible. The player should always be aware of their ultimate goal. You can twist it, and obfuscate a few things where necessary, but if there's one thing RPGs in particular are guilty of, it's not giving players/characters a long term motivation. Bouncing from quest-to-quest because they're there doesn't count, and really, they're part of the problem. The mentality seems to become - "Okay, so I know I need to find a way into the city, but I have to do all these unrelated tasks first for XPs and loots" and during that time you're steadily forgetting about that overall goal and diluting it with bullshit that doesn't matter.

    Yawn. Here we go with that "moral" tripe again.

    So the twist comes at the start of the third act, huh? And nobody had the foresight to see that ultimately that means the narrative peaks a long way before the end?

    Heh, is it wrong of me to instantly think "Didn't Bethesda record Liam Neeson's VO at least a year ago?" This one is another "duh" moment. I don't know why anyone would want to lock themselves into a narrative early in development. No matter how much design you have on paper, game development is always going to be an organic process, and the easier it is to change and mutate things on the fly, the better chance you have of getting it right.

    Good point, as long as you're wary that a narrative that is dumbed down for the purpose of being accessible can insult the intelligence of your players. Wait. It will insult the intelligence of your players, though many don't seem to care because they're used to it. I'm going to have a shot at rephrasing that for him.

    Respect the audience; don't force the story on any players and deliver a narrative where the main sticking points are presented in a straightforward manner, but built upon a much greater depth and detail to satisfy the player who want to dig deeper into the underlying themes.

    Again, there's a caveat or two here. I love unanswered questions in narrative. It fuels my imagination and my brain runs in overdrive considering the possibilities. But. I'm well aware that's not everyone's bag. I know a lot of people who resent films, books or games that don't tie up loose ends. I think it's best to provide an answer (not necessarily the absolute truth) to the critical questions, but leave enough on the periphery to let the imagination run wild.

    "Empower the gamer"? That's a bit of a wank. Make the story seem unobtrusive, but never beyond arm's reach. If possible, give the player a degree of authorship.
     
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  10. Tagaziel Scholar

    Tagaziel
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    I loathe Ken Levine.

    One, for lobotomizing Bioshock.

    Two, for portraying that as a good thing.
     
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  11. ghostdog Prestigious Gentleman Arcane Patron

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    Bioshock is system shock 2 with easier combat , less skills and better graphics. SS2 was a market failure but it built a strong fanbase so they decided to make an easier game that would also appeal to the ss2 fanbase. They made a financially good choice apparently.

    Bioshock's story had much more potential that ss2 but it loses momentum at a certain point and never recovers. Bioshock fails even in the graphical department since it's obvious after a while that there is only one male and one female model in the game, with some slight variations. Tenenbaum is exactly the same as a female splicer and Andrew Ryan is a male splicer with a moustache. And all the "human" faces in Bioshock look absolutely horrible.
     
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  12. Volourn Pretty Princess Pretty Princess

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    "or Madden fan that just wants to blow stuff up"

    O RLY? I must have missed that part in madden where I took my bazooka out, and blew an opposing player's head off? R00fles!

    Fuck. What a fuckin' dumb thing to say.
     
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  13. Futile Rhetoric Arcane

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    Myst is basically the "Brief History of Time" of video games. Everyone bought it but no one played it. A lot of people bought it for the pretty pictures and didn't get past the first puzzles, it came bundled with new computers and hardware, etcetera. It is a very poor example, really.
     
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  14. The_Pope Scholar

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    He sounds pretty bitter about having to dumb his game down for 'the average halo player' to me.
     
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  15. Lord Chambers Erudite

    Lord Chambers
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    He sounds pretty realistic about the market and that their initial approach to it wasn't a perfect one; hence the need to stay flexible until late in development.

    He's probably smart enough that if he wanted to people to read his story he would know the correct medium to convey it in, such as a novel. I don' t think he sounds bitter, just that he's smart enough to understand player expectations and _gasp_ design in accordance with those, rather than refuse to compromise his grand intelligence and genius for the "lowest common denominator" or "console kiddies" or <some>.

    There's a time and place for 100 pages of text. Many gamers think that's a book. When a developer chooses financial success over failure because he understands this, I see no crime or bitterness.
     
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  16. ricolikesrice Arcane

    ricolikesrice
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    what gameplay ? They are talking about Bioshock , right ? I.e. the crappy corridor shooter with boring weapons, boring enemies, retarded gunplay ... where the idiotic hacking minigame was almost more fun then the rest ?

    they shouldnt have cut the story, they should have cut the lacklustre excuse of a game and make a decent book or movie instead.
     
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  17. Dmitron Arbiter

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    So grow some fucking balls Ken and do something inspiring.

    (Sorry, for a moment I forgot about shareholders)
     
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  18. Zomg Arbiter

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    Make three games at 1/3 the budget for the three audiences. Oh, wait, can't, 'cause the industry is an oily, writhing fagpile.
     
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  19. Lurkar Scholar

    Lurkar
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    That's how I read it myself.

    This didn't read as someone who's embracing his fame and loving every second of how much people adored his game. It's a sad, broken man who doesn't have the will to try something new and has come to the bitter realization that, in order to be successful, you have to butcher your own creation.
     
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  20. Morgoth Arcane Patron

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    Compared to Shock2, Bioshock felt dumbed down, yes. But the game was a massive success, thus Ken did the right thing for him and his team.
    Making a hardcore FPS/RPG hybrid with a AAA budget would be a total careless act anyway. When a publisher shoves you 20 millions into the arse, you better make a game that sells well, or else that's the end of your career.
    And I don't get the "he's a broken man" nonsense. He's just not the type of narcissistic jerk that takes his creation so deadly serious.
     
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  21. The_Pope Scholar

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    Calling game stories stupid and saying most players just want to blow stuff up sounds disillusioned at the very least. I get the distinct impression he would have preferred to make something with MOAR STORY, but he knows most people just want explosions. I actually respect him a lot for admitting that they cut out a lot to make it more appealing to the ADD crowd, and trying to do put something beyond shoot mutants in for system shock fans.

    Understanding the fact that the average gamer is borderline retarded isn't liking it.
     
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  22. ricolikesrice Arcane

    ricolikesrice
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    ....

    massive sales come from massive hypes, best example of last year beeing hellgate:london, which was a massive success even DESPITE getting shitty reviews all along even the mainstream media. heck here in germany HG:L outsold bioshock PC almost 2:1 even though the average mainstream whore voted BS 9.5/10 and HG:L 7.5/10 (which translates into "shit" by mainstream standards)

    thus i dont see how bioshock could have possible failed if it were actually a good game to begin with ... the hype was there anyways and guaranteed lots of sales thanks to lots of sheep.
    more likely ( dont know exact numbers of units bioshock sold platform & worldwide) the game would have had even better sales if it were actually good, boosted by the X% of smart gamers who d have bought it along the hype-believing morons.
    now how much X is, nobody knows, but even for the biggest pessimist i d guess it could be at least around 10-20% extra sales.

    funny how people asume that to get a blockbuster seller you have to dumb down ..... yet at the same time the most succesfull video game in history didnt dumb down but actually improved its genre in many different ways (world of warcraft). beats me.
     
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  23. Soulforged Scholar

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    That was exactly his point and exactly what they did. To me it felt fabricated and unimmersive, I like every detail of the game world to be consistent with its presentation and context, but that's just me, leaving recorded messages thrown all around is ridiculous from my perspective. What I don't get is this: If they had such a big script that ran deep inside Rapture's story and VIPs, adding hundreds of details and dozens of characters, why did they butcher it instead of leaving it in, in the same way they did with the existing details, i.e. the recorded tapes?
    I believe that's why he says that the story must be fucking dumb. Living in the "now" as you say doesn't make a game a failure, it does only if the game is supposed to have an story, also living only in the "now" could also be another way of saying "I'm dumb".
    I believe that's exactly what he meant by "optional" a part of the story, details mainly, that await for the curious player, or the involved one as you put it.
    This is a very good point, I mostly agree with it.
    It seems he and others did, they just didn't change it.
    I think that's what he said.
     
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  24. elander_ Arbiter

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    The free market is a dirty whore.
     
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  25. Dire Roach Prophet

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    Simple solution:

    Step 1. Dumb down your video game's story for the crowd that suffers from ADD.

    Step 2. Publish a novel based on what your original story was like.

    Step 3. Profit.

    If you managed to secure enough financial success and still care about showing your artistic vision to the world, you could go on and release some super-special-extended edition of the game that includes all the things you cut out the first time.
     
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