In writing, there’s a general distinction between a plot driven story and a character driven story – the events in the former are driven by external causes, while the events in the latter come about because of characters’ internal motivations. Many times, the plot driven story is looked down upon by writers because it doesn’t provide any additional character depth. A character driven story can have the same dramatic highs and lows of a finely structured plot driven story, but it also fleshes out characters’ inner lives to resonate more deeply. It’s just harder to apply both constraints.
In games we certainly suffer from the lack of character driven writing, but have our own unique form of failure in writing – the spatially driven story. In this, the characters exist soley to provide rationale to place gameplay in interesting locales (either visually interesting, mechanically interesting, or both).
Assassin’s Creed 2 suffers more from this than any other game I’ve played as of late – Ezio clothes are far richer than his personality. What do we know about Ezio? He has some family, he’s a bit of a playboy, and he’s out for vengeance. All of these are used, to varying degrees, to give the player reason to move through the space as the fiction behind mission objectives. (Jorge Albor covers these flaws well at Experience Points). But what else do we know about Ezio? Not much. Granted, I’m only halfway through at this point, but I’m not going to hold my breath for them to animate cardboard cutout Ezio with some life.
Avatar manages to take these elements of video game writing (to be fair, they do have their roots in action blockbuster writing), and singlehandedly disproves the notion that games are not fit to tell stories. It shows even in film, when you start with context sprung from a teenage boy’s mind to take place in fantastic locales and look awesome, you end up with the same exact result, regardless of the medium. It is essentially a video game storyline, albeit a finely overwrought one. Even Ebert turns hyprocrite, often criticisng movie plots for being game-like, loving it. You like space marines, Rog? Really? We can hook you up.
In its details, it is almost textbook in the application of Hollywood formulae. Payoffs abound, from the moment of realization Sully has waking in his human body after sleeping with Neytiri, to the final fight where Sully in Na’vi form defeats Colonel Quaritch in his mech. However, while the Na’vi are immediately likeable as the underdog, it takes Sully three months and the better portion (in size) of the film to finally change his mind at the last possible moment, when he finally realizes that the Na’vi and their home are worth saving. There’s is no worthwhile character justification given for such wild shifts in behavior. Sully is either dumb as fuck or temporarily psychopathic. The decision and its timing only serve to create visual drama.
Uncharted 2 attempts to apply the exact same formulae. Yet while the levels also take place in one amazing location after another, their flow comes from and represents Drake’s internal conflict between hedonism (money and sex) and virtue (information or truth, and love). He alternates evenly between desiring treasure, wanting to find the historical truth, saving Chloe (lust) or saving Elena (love). Even trying to save Chloe (since you do it so many times) oscillates between motivations of purity (to actually keep her from dying) and impurity (when’s she’s double-crossed you and you need her to get back to the treasure).
In this way, Naughty Dog externalizes the conflict that makes Drake a likeable reluctant hero. The purpose the other characters serve isn’t to bring you to a specific location, it’s to change Drake’s motivation for going somewhere. Story elements that at first glance seem like they are there to superficially highlight exotic locales serve a deeper purpose to communicate internal character motivation (as cliche as it may be).
These works obviously have more positive and negative aspects, these are only criticisms of their overall storylines. Games can also achieve so much more with emergent story structure, but in writing story elements for The Unconcerned, with it’s more traditional storytelling methods, these are unavoidable problems. I want to incorporate key locations like Baharestan Square, Tehran University, or the Grand Bazaar because they afford opportunities to include the subtext I want and provide visual interest. You do spend more time looking at game environments than you do parsing story context; it’s not inappropriate to make sure level locations meet these kinds of requirements. What should be be discouraged is assuming that is enough. Storytelling in games will never avoid the morass of juvenile discussion the topic naturally encourages if we only settle for the highest priority requirement – we gotta do it all.