How to tell a good story in a game

"Sleeping Dogs." (HO)

Steve Tilley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:30 PM ET

I had the chance to chat with legendary director John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing, Escape from New York) before his appearance at Fan Expo Canada last week in Toronto, and the conversation eventually turned to video games. Turns out the 64-year-old Carpenter is a bona fide gamer, and lent his scarecrafting talents to last year's spooky F.E.A.R. 3 because he's genuinely interested in games as an entertainment medium.

(I also found out he's supremely stoked for this month's release of Borderlands 2, having been a rabid fan of the original game. "Oh God, I can't wait to get my hands on it," he said. The man is legit!)

I asked Carpenter about the challenge of telling meaningful stories in games, and while he said conveying a story in a game isn't necessarily difficult -- "Donkey Kong told a story: Get to the top" -- he admits that video game stories are often little more than flimsy glue holding disparate chunks of action together, rather than being created from the outset as a way of giving that action some emotional context.

Some games, like the Mass Effect series, tell great stories through excellent character development and skillful use of familiar cinematic tools. Others, like this summer's Spec Ops: The Line, give players' actions some moral weight, making them wonder if gunning down all these enemy soldiers is actually the right thing to do.

As the autumn video game release season begins to gear up, I find myself hoping I'll play some games that satisfy my love of good tales as much as my love of action and thrills. Here are three obstacles that stand in the way:

Freedom comes with a price

Open-world games can have interesting stories -- just look at Sleeping Dogs and its story of honour and betrayal, as inspired by Hong Kong action movies. Thing is, the more freedom game creators give players, the less control they have over the structure and pace of the story. Non-linear games like Sleeping Dogs and the Grand Theft Auto series have to make do with nuggets of story floating in a sea of unrelated side-missions and minigames.

Dialogue does not equal story

Mass Effect 3 and Uncharted 3 are games that rely heavily on chatter between characters, but they come from talented development studios that value writing as much as programming. Sadly, many studios seem afraid to let go of the cliches that have saddled game characters for decades, and settle for two-dimensional meatheads blathering exposition at each other. Just because there's a script doesn't mean there's a plot.

Games aren't movies

A small handful of franchises know how to take the language of movies and translate them to games in ways that work. But designing a game as though it were a movie is like writing a song using a painting as your template. Half-Life 2 understood this -- the game never leaves the player's first-person viewpoint for cinematic cutscenes, yet still tells a great yarn. Different mediums require different tools. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Action-packed games with stories

Can games with action and mayhem also have memorable characters and stories that make us care? Here are three Steve Tilley is betting will pleasantly surprise gamers in the next six months:

Dishonored (Xbox 360, PS3, PC; Oct. 9)

The original Deus Ex remains one of the best examples of a game story blended with freedom of choice, and it's no surprise this game is by one of the same developers.

Far Cry 3 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC; Dec. 4)

Despite being an open-world action game, Far Cry 3 is experimenting with character development and perception of reality in ways that look really interesting.

BioShock Infinite (Xbox 360, PS3, PC; Feb. 26)

An early 20th-century airborne city torn apart by revolution is the backdrop for what's shaping up to be a thinking person's action game, much like its 2007 predecessor, BioShock.

 


Videos

Photos