Story in Games

I found an interesting piece on story in games over on Ars Technica. It’s not the usual “games need better writing” vs. “game stories are fine” arguments, but rather looks at how story ties in with gameplay, and how the two can be at odds.

For example, I discovered one minor secret “backwards”; I came across a locked chest after visiting the area in which its key could be found.

Usually, I *like* that.

[I am, however, very lazy and would wish that games that do this sort of thing auto-map a locked chest so I can visit it again later. It's what I'd do if I was exploring a space with a map in my hand, mark the spot, make a note, do stuff later. And if auto-mapping isn't available, at least I'd like to make notes/markers myself.]

But the author puts a slightly different spin on it, and it’s something I’ve encountered before and found slightly sad, too:

The first time I went through the location with the key, things were relatively quiet and peaceful—the perfect mood for hunting for items. However, between finding the chest and backtracking to retrieve the key, I unleashed hell in the service of advancing the plot. The result was that rather than hunting for the key in a quiet lull, I was opening boxes and searching the floor in the middle of all-out warfare.

It was incongruous. This was meant to be an exciting, action-packed part of the game, with significant implications for the game universe, and I was walking around looking for a key, completely disregarding the mayhem around me.

Yup.

It’s quite obvious what is happen mechanically; the story has advanced to such a state that when you enter the area, certain triggers are activated and the next story segment unfolds – whether you’re in the mood for it or not.

I’m torn as to whether I like or hate it. I tend to experience one of three feelings about it:
- If it’s done right, I feel great about it. It feels like the world around me is alive; after all, the real world doesn’t plan everything straightforward as a movie plot.
- If it’s done wrong, I can feel railroaded into something that really just annoys me, never mind how good the scene is.
- Even if it’s done right in itself, it can completely mess with the pacing of the game.

I think the games that deal best with this sort of thing are games that don’t so much tell the hero’s own story, but are more a case of the hero stumbling in on somebody else’s story. It may be the moment of peak excitement in my side-kick’s story to stumble upon a large group of enemies; my own story, however, is searching for the key. I will deal with my side-kick’s enemies because of the bond between us, as a favour, and treat it as just one of those events that life throws at you.

However, I can’t help but wish there was a good mechanism for avoiding such clashes altogether.