There's a video game producer at Sony PlayStation named Sam Thompson who always asks me if I have more hard questions for him. Whenever I see him, he asks me this.
The reason he expects hard questions is because late in the spring of 2007, he was showing me a prerelease version of the PlayStation 3 game "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune," and I asked him why I should care. He gave me a plot synopsis: everyman hero Nathan Drake looking for treasure, something about El Dorado, a female reporter along for the adventure, etc.
That sounds nice, I told Thompson, but why, as a player, should I care? If playing a game is like being an actor acting out a script, then what's my motivation? How was this different from so many other games with plots just like that?
Sam wasn't sure what more he could say to convince me. So we stopped talking about the game's story line and went back to talking about how the game was played. Some would say we went back to talking about what mattered. But what about the stories we get to experience in video games? Are they gripping enough? Do they matter? Are they great? Can they be great?
For years I've heard from gamers and game developers who relish the stories in "Final Fantasy" games or in the adventures made by Canadian developer BioWare. But at the Game Developers Conference last month, I heard something else. I heard game developers grump about the state of storytelling in video games.
I heard Dave Jones, president of development studio Real Time Worlds and one of the original architects of the "Grand Theft Auto" series, telling an audience: "I like to leave story to books and movies."
David Braben, anther long-tenured game designer, sat with me to talk about his company's upcoming downloadable Wii game "Lost Winds" but veered into a discussion about story and just how bad he thinks most games' tales are. And then he apologized for it: "If you look at stories in films in the '30s, they were sh--." Gaming can get better too.
I met with Denis Dyack, the ever-outspoken president of Silicon Knights to talk about the ambitious and heavily story-driven action game "Too Human," which his company will be releasing on the Xbox 360 this year. And he trashed game stories too. He said the current quality of game stories is "just not acceptable."
Here's what he told GameFile (it's classic Dyack, the kind of commentary that has won him legions of fans and detractors): "I think stories like [the ones in the books] 'Hyperion' or 'Altered Carbon' or very serious science fiction — we need to get stories to that level in the video game industry. ... Bubblegum stories are OK, but there's no reason we can't aspire to do more for those who want to do more. Certainly there's room for everything. If 'Too Human' can say anything, it's that it can be done, and we should at least attempt to try."
Dyack's game "Too Human" features a hero, Baldur, who is among the pantheon of cybernetically enhanced interpretations of the Norse gods. It's an action game, the first of a trilogy that is supposed to tell an epic narrative. The tale is ultimately about the relationship between technology and humanity, Dyack said, an argument he spun by talking about how sewing machines and cars and all sorts of other technologies were treated like something better than people themselves. It's a theme, he said, but he has yet to elaborate on how that will be delivered through the plot. (Dyack talks more about "Too Human" with MTV News in our Multiplayer blog.)
Dyack is tired of bubblegum. Braben said game storytelling, in TV terms, is still in no more than the "I Love Lucy" era. Jones doesn't even want a story.
In his presentation, Jones was primarily showing off his company's upcoming massively multiplayer game, "APB." It doesn't have much of a story. So it wasn't surprising for him to downplay storytelling as an important component of games. Story isn't what makes games special, he said: "The one thing only our medium can do is create a world and bunches of toys and let people go in there to live out their imagination."
When I talked to Braben, I mentioned some games known for famous stories. But what about any of the "Final Fantasy" games, I asked? What about "Metal Gear"? He's working on a game called "The Outsider," which is supposed to present a dynamically changing story in a political action-thriller setting. I asked him to at least name gaming's three greatest stories. And he wouldn't — or couldn't. He was dry. He said most games with story had the player "doing a piece of gameplay and then unlocking story." That stuff doesn't count. "The story feels a little bit peripheral in most cases." I was looking for more, doing my best to badger him the way I guess I do with Sam Thompson.
No great gaming stories? Really? Braben mentioned his enjoyment of encountering and controlling the "clearly disturbed" character Kai from last fall's PS3 game "Heavenly Sword." She's a wide-eyed, eccentric cross between loopy and limber "Lord of the Rings" character Gollum, a great archer, and the snappy dresser Björk. Braben liked her because she felt like an actual character, one that wasn't a stereotype, wasn't explained — just was.
So what was the greatest story a video game ever told? A "GTA" game? "Mass Effect"? "Planescape: Torment"? Was the greatest gaming story ever told even a great one? Or should developers not bother trying to tell a great one? At GDC, the answer wasn't clear. But the restlessness was evident. Games don't tell great stories yet, the game makers told me, and maybe they never will.
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