GDC08: The eight best stories in gaming


Tuesday afternoon four well-known games industry writers and designers got together to discuss the best storytelling gaming has to offer in a panel entitled "Stories Best Played: Deconstructing the Best Interactive Storytelling." Each of the authors brought a pair of games that they viewed as some of the narratively strongest yet made. Prior to the panel all four men played the ten titles, and came prepared to talk about the strengths and merits of each. Panelists Richard Rouse (Paranoid Productions), Steve Meretzky (Blue Fang), Marc Laidlaw (Valve Software), and Ken Rolston (Big Huge Games) offered up, in essence, a 'top eight' list for gamers looking to get more from exposition than explosions.

Read on for views from a panel of expert opinions on the likes of Loom, BioShock, Phoenix Wright and the legendary Planescape: Torment.

Loom - Lush art and a quirky sensibility, as well as audio inspired by Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, make this a standout title among LucasArts' stable of greats. On the design side, incredibly unique puzzles - including a music-based magic system. Meretzky praised the game's transcendence of the fantasy genre, and their fearless decision to make a game without a happy conclusion . Much appreciation for proving that fantasy endings can be more than just "cheering elves".

Thief - Marc Laidlaw tapped this title for its amazing cutout-style animated cutscenes and the game's high level of characterization. Much praise issued forth about the game's establishment of atmosphere and mood, as well as its crisp sound design. Viewing Thief as an experience with inverted expectations (sneaking instead of run and gun), the industry heavyweights touted it as ahead-of-its-time. In some ways, in their view, it was superior to stealth titles that have come along years later.

Planescape - Ken Rolston issued forth enthusiastically on this game, a cult classic among RPG players. He notes that, as the character literally has the game's manual tattooed on his back, The Nameless One protagonist "bears the weight of exposition on his shoulders." Storytelling is effectively conveyed through further exposition on found body parts and endless reams of dialogue. Rolston offers that, though this is a masterpiece, it's really only accessible to people with a body of knowledge about D&D. Laidlaw agreed, saying he found it hard to comprehend parts of the story. Rolston went on to say that "Planescape can never be done again. It's like Moby Dick. It's been done." He also compared it to Chinese literature in some ways - the reams of commentary on the title are almost as important to Planescape's experience as playing.

BioShock - Richard Rouse rounded out out the top four with a game most next-gen players are familiar with: BioShock. Given that everyone in the room was familiar with (and most likely a fan of) Irrational/2K's work, Rouse didn't spend much time rehashing the game. He did specifically note that the story was very effectively conveyed during storytelling, with in-game audio and imagery. In-game 'cutscenes' and the audio diaries conveyed a sense of the world to the player through the game's compelling dialogue and voiceover work. Much more on BioShock's storytelling experience are available in our post on Ken Levine's "Why Gamers Should Like Your Stupid Story" talk.

The Fool's Errand - A very quirky title, Fool's Errand was introduced by Meretzky as "the most fun hours of gaming he had ever had." Based on the Tarot deck, the game featured intricate puzzles and an overlapping text-based story. Finishing puzzles opened up additional stories in the game, plus tiles on the "Sun Map", the game's final puzzle. Steve was enamoured with the game's use of a simple story to convey a compelling experience. In some ways, it reminded him of Lewis Carrol, describing it as having the "observations and caustic wit of an Alice in Wonderland." He also noted it is available for free at foolserrand.com, with a sequel planned in a few months.

Chronicles of Riddick - Ken Rolston's second pick had a lot of people laughing and (from the sounds of murmurs) agreeing. He was unapologetic, saying that the cliches he usually rolls his eyes about (a licensed game, a jut-jawwed hero, a prison) all worked really well in this title. As he put it, the wants of the protagonist (to escape from prison) match one-to-one with the player. What results is a gameplay and storyline ideally suited for the Vin Diesel character. Rolston went further, offering that he thought this proves that performers are one of the "great untapped natural resources" of gaming. Though there was some dissension from other panelists, one of the other writers opined that it was "Beyond Good and Evil, for boys."

Phoenix Wright - As his second pick for the talk, Marc Laidlaw fully admitted that Phoenix Wright is the most 'traditional' storytelling game they were going to talk about. It uses plot reversals, stereotypical good characters, and very simple animations to get across its tale of courtroom drama. Where the twist comes in is the fact that the "opposing farce" is always fascinating - with unique animations that portrays the process of cracking under interrogation pressure. Characters in the game serve as the point where gampeplay and narrative intersect, with the core mysteries of the game being entirely character-driven (just as in BioShock and Planescape).

Ico - The little brother / big sister dynamic of Ico, Richard Rouse's second pick for the event, was easily the one that brought the most agreement from the audience. As Rouse put it, it's not often that you see an emotional relationship as a gameplay mechanic. Because of the minimal use of dialogue, character definition is achieved through animation and interconnected relationships. Other panelists concurred, with Laidlaw noting that the use of the controller's vibration function as a core component of the game's emotional climax was particularly brilliant. Meretzky offered that of all the titles they'd discussed today, Ico was the one that "best told its story as a game."

They panelists concluded by offering some surprisingly dire pronouncements about the relationship between stories and games. At the moment, they said, stories are essentially "irrelevant" to games and "can't compete" with other storytelling mediums. They stated that they have high hopes for the future, but for the moment the art of conveying a tale via videogaming is still somewhat crude. They finished by offered some 'alternate picks', additional titles that didn't make the cut.

Richard:
  • The Last Express
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
  • A Mind Forever Voyaging

Marc:
  • Ecstatica
  • Myst
  • The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

Steve:
  • Suspended
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
  • Portal

Ken:
  • Gadget
  • Myth
  • Call of Duty
  • Betrayal at Krondor
Follow-up questions were sparse, but one particularly got a few laughs. An audience member asked why the panelists hadn't talked about Massively Multiplayer games, which offer very distinct ways of telling stories. The panelists blinked, and Rolston offered the pithy reply: "How long do you have? That's really an entirely other panel." They went on to say that they were looking specifically at authorial storytelling; the storytelling potential in MMOs is there, but deals with very different issues.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.