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Approaching Game Narrative Critique

Critiquing stories, or narratives, in video games presents an interesting problem. Because video games are so complex covering a wide variety of genres (story and gameplay-wise), picking out the story can be complicated. Only by understanding how stories relate to other mediums and to the game itself can we develop adequate techniques and approaches for critiquing video game narratives.

According to the theories of Classical Game Design, a game's story only operates on the level that the player can interact with. In other words, the story in a game is not the short description found in the instruction manual, or the series of cinematic scenes interspersed throughout the game. Rather, the story is the actions, functions, and outcomes of the player as they play the game. In Classical Game Design, all of the games elements are designed to support the gameplay. This is significant because this school of design puts graphics, music, sound, and story in subsidiary roles. By prioritizing game play, classic game design puts what is more unique about games, their interactivity, in the forefront. In The Lester Bangs of Video Games Chuck Klosterman posts a quote from Steven Johnson regarding how established methods of critiquing games are ineffective because they fail to take advantage of what is unique to the medium.

"Games can't be analyzed using the aesthetic tools we've developed to evaluate narrative art forms like books or films. Video games generally have narratives and some kind of character development, but--almost without exception--these are the least interesting things about them. Gamers don't play because they're drawn into the story line; they play because there's something intoxicating about the mix of exploring an environment and solving problems. The stories are an afterthought."

Thinking in the Classical Game Design mode, for a Mario game, the story isn't so much about saving a princess as it's every jump, star, and power-up along the way. For a Zelda game, sure, Gannon is most likely up to no good, but the transformation from the ephemeral teen to the hero of time is the narrative. Every enemy, heart piece, and item you collect defines and harmonizes the vast, seemingly chaotic world around the player. This is the narrative of the game. When the game's elements are all designed to support its gameplay, the core functions are unified into an experience that is both unique and universal for all players. It's not goal, but how you get there.


The rules, assumptions, and principles of Classical Game Design, were pioneered by Shigeru Miyamoto. The functions of a game (gameplay) should be supported by how the game looks, feels, and sounds. His background in Industrial Engineering is the obvious source for this kind of approach to game design. Such an approach is an important part of what makes Nintendo's games Nintendo games. Needless to say, most developers don't follow many of the principles of Classical Game Design. Western game design and some genres in particular, privilege story over gameplay. It seems odd that a developer would sacrifice what is most unique about the video game medium (the interactivity) for story that, in the traditional sense, isn't interactive. However, without getting into a debate between the two schools of game design, figuring out a way to approach critiquing stories in games that prioritize story over gameplay is still important.

Years ago, game stories were communicated via large amounts of text. RPGs fall into this camp. The story sequences, and all the dialogue from both main, side, and the NPCs (non playable charactres) were all driven by text. Though story is such a large part of these games, it's strange that reviews fail to review or comment on the more intricate aspects of such stories. Most reviewers will write a shallow summary of the plot that does little more than inform the reader that the game is an epic or features some kind of hero's quest. Most RPG stories fall under these categories. What's worse, many reviewers seem to only judge a story based on how many plot twists or cliches it contains. Unfortunately, this method of review fails to critique or even think about the execution of such stories. Shouldn't these stories be critiqued like any other piece of literature, especially if the story is prioritized over the gameplay? Shouldn't we be able to critique cinematic cut scenes with the same methods as short film/movie critiques? Certainly if we did, most "excellent" game stories wouldn't hold a candle to actual books/films. The more games privilege story over gameplay, the harder they'll have to fight as they straddle the line between literature, film, and games. By properly critiquing game stories, we'll be able to recognize their quality by their own merit and hopefully stop saying stories are good "for a videogame."

This generation of gaming has already seen a leap in the quality of story telling and presentation. Heavenly Sword is one of the forerunners for this leap. The cinematic scenes in this game are so well acted, animated, and voice acted that many reviewers have commented that the gap between films and games is shrinking. These comments aren't unfounded. Heavenly Sword looks phenomenal. However, like movies, there's more to communicating a story than sharp visuals and talented actors. Direction, editing, and scripting are all critical components. It doesn't take a professional film critique to see that Heavenly Sword's "movie-like" sequences fall far short of telling a decent story. Strictly critiquing the scenes, many are jumpy, poorly cut, and poorly paced. Though the acting is great, the characters are little more than histrionic hyperboles of cliche characters. Such characters can be used to assemble great narratives, however, their portrayal in Heavenly Sword is insufficient. The first few major scenes in the game are actually good. However, as the game progresses, the scenes become more abrupt and less coherent.

If Heavenly Sword were a film, it would fail to tell a cohesive story. Though the gameplay isn't necessarily privileged over the presentation, it is still important to consider how the level interactivity supports the narrative. Many of the transitions between the cinematic scenes and the gameplay sequences are jarring. I found myself frequently wondering where my particular character was, what I was doing, and why. Ultimately, Heavenly Sword's story is just a gallimaufry of ideas and over the top characters with gameplay that does little to connect the scattered dots.

While Heavenly sword features a very linear story, the upcoming game Mass Effect boasts a deep, and robust narrative adventure that the player can interact with by carving out their path through the galaxy. If Heavenly Sword's narrative is like a roller coaster, then Mass Effect is like being turned loose on the whole theme park. Where you go, and how you get there is up to you. The player's unique journey through this world comprises the story in the same way a Zelda games does. When I considered how to approach critiquing a story like Mass Effect's I came up with a few approaches. One key feature of the game is how the player's choices change the paths they take through the game. Examining the extent these choices actually have on the gameplay and the story is one approach. Another approach is to compare the multiple branching narrative paths to try an expose a overarching/master narrative that could be considered what Mass Effect is really about. Minimizing the significance of the player's choice, the dialogue (text) and the scene composition can also be critiqued borrowing the terms and techniques from film critique.

I will be spending time with Mass Effect next week in order to write about its real story, something that other reviewers will probably fail to write on despite Mass Effects significant focus on narrative.

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Reader Comments (2)

"If Heavenly Sword's narrative is like a roller coaster, then Mass Effect is like being turned loose on the whole theme park."

I really like this analogy. In my opinion we need more 'theme park' games and fewer 'roller coasters'. But, of course, every good theme park contains a selection of great roller coasters.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCrowbarSka

@ CrowbarSka

True. I like what you said about every good theme park containing great roller coasters.

I like a good roller coaster and a good theme park. All I require is that developers do well in whichever they choose. This usually requires developers to know what the pros/cons are for each type.

February 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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