Telling stories: The games that got it right

Jason Dobson
J. Dobson|12.26.08

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Telling stories: The games that got it right

As games have evolved, so too has the role of storytelling in the titles we play. As we turn the corner on 2008, we asked multiple industry personalities across all walks of game development on titles such as Dragon Age: Origins, Bionic Commando and Guild Wars for their thoughts.

It's rare that story tellers get all of the pieces of their narrative to fit together exactly right in any medium. But in this industry, where story shares a balance with gameplay and endings often get the short end of the development stick, weaving a complete and compelling tale must be a daunting task. Now, gifts unwrapped and bellies full, our panel of industry personalities sound off on those games that they feel were up to the challenge, delivering storytelling experiences above and beyond their peers.

David Gaider, lead writer on Bioware's Dragon Age: Origins and author of the first Dragon Age novel, The Stolen Throne

I think Planescape: Torment is a good example. The heavy text and set protagonist might not have been for everyone, but insofar as the characters it developed and the story it told it's pretty hard to match. I think if the gameplay element had been stronger it might have been my perfect game.

Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I think Baldur's Gate II got it right, as well. The story and characters were memorable and nobody was left wanting at the end. Those are both indicative of my personal taste, of course, as I happen to like big, sprawling epics.

Jeff Ross, Resistance Retribution game designer at Sony Bend

Call of Duty 4 because it broke several design and storytelling 'rules.' Infinity Ward loaded an entire level solely to have the player crawl from a wrecked helicopter and die. This title broke several other 'rules' which yielded emotional buy-in from the player. The inciting event for COD4 was the execution of a deposed dictator, told from that dictator's point of view.

The developers could have presented this event through standard narrative devices, but their counter-intuitive choice resulted in my caring more about the execution, and hence the missions I later undertook. Even the ending ran against conventional thought, leaving the player's unit decimated and dying after successfully completing their final mission.

Ulf Andersson, GRIN co-founder and Bionic Commando game director

Well, tough question. Portal was good because of its short length and the fact that they realized their limits and made something good out of that. They managed to keep the situation interesting by choosing a shorter game.

Another game that I had a good experience with is Fallout 1-2. Just solid straight through, with a consistent style and quality. It was really just consistent.

Joe Morrissey, senior game designer at MMO publisher NCsoft NorCal

Half-Life. I called in sick to play this game. The moment I saw the spray paint on the wall that said, "Give up Freeman" and I thought, "That's me", I knew Valve had me. The ending pulled me forward waiting for its new beginning.

's another great example. On some level I cared about GLaDOS. I didn't want to kill her. I felt sorry for her, but hell if I was going to let that multi-eyed bitch take me out. I laughed my ass of with the credits. Touché, GLaDOS... Touché. Bioshock's another great example. Uncovering the story of Rapture, Andrew Ryan and your own past kept bringing me back to the game, multiple times.

Jeff Grubb, designer and writer for Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2

I thought Portal has some wonderful characterization and resolution, which shows that you don't have to have an epic storyline to create good character.

Brad Wardell, CEO of Galactic Civilizations developer, Stardock

I would say the original Knights of the Old Republic nailed every bit of the story. BioWare really has a talent for telling compelling stories that fit together nicely.

Dan Tovar and Mark Brown, co-producers on Splatterhouse for Namco Bandai

I would have to say the most satisfying 'front-to-back' experience for me in recent years, would be Call of Duty 4. You really grew attached to those characters and what they were going through. And the ending was mind-blowingly satisfying. You wanted that ending so badly and they gave it you; with every intention of it being the best kill ever. And it was. They nailed it all, the intros, the build up, the dramatic climax and then POW! The three best bullets to date.

Jools Watsham, owner and game director of Moon developer, Renegade Kid

I think Bioshock does a great job. The story, characters and voice acting work well to keep your journey interesting. There is still room for improvement, but it works as a great example.

Tom Gaubatz, producer for publisher Mastiff

I'd like to say Final Fantasy VI, but a game that big is like a novel – not everything is going to be perfectly tight. You can't have 14+ playable characters without a few stinkers. Relm? Give me a break. I'm more interested in stories in action games because they need to be economical. Mega Man 3 is a great study in character.

A game that gets all the pieces right? Ninja Gaiden on the NES. What a tight game. Ninja Gaiden is about hurrying; it's an action platformer that's based on a sense of forward momentum. This is a game that makes you rush and attack more than Rush'n Attack. The story, which is otherwise entirely superfluous to the gameplay, still reflects and amplifies that pacing and urgency. Each cut-scene ends with Ryu getting told/ordered/coerced/forced/otherwise compelled to go somewhere and do something, fast. "No time to lose, Hayabusa.... Move it out." OK, that's the sequel, but it's the same concept. It's an absurd narrative structure, and the story doesn't make much sense in the first place, but it complements the gameplay and as a player you get caught up in the momentum of both.

I had Ninja Gaiden in mind during the development of Moon. Moon is also, gameplay-wise, about a sense of urgency; it begins with an exploratory feeling that quickly escalates into action, and the action gradually accelerates over the course of the game. Our writers used some narrative smoke and mirrors to keep exposition brief and maintain a sense of mystery while giving urgency to the gameplay. You'll hear "There's no time to explain!" a few times. Moon stands on its own as an action game, but like Ninja Gaiden, the story drives the game forward and adds a lot to its identity.
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