Destiny and Shortcomings in Videogame Narrative

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I read two great articles this past week that I feel highlight the major reasons why narrative storytelling is generally lacking in games, particularly in big budget titles. One about artists and techies not being able to work together due to a mutual disrespect, and one about Destiny’s problematic development. I have never played Destiny, but it was the “talk of the town” when it was released, particularly because it did not live up to expectations. Often described as “the game I hate but I can’t stop playing”, a major gripe about it was the lack of a coherent story and Peter Dinklage’s voice acting, (hint: it sucked). Finally, the details of what happened over at Bungie were released in a recent article at Kotaku . One quote particularly stood out to me:

“According to one source, Jones also told the team that he wanted a less linear story—one in which the player could decide where to go at any time.
That became one of Destiny’s key pillars.”

I have written before about how story in an open world game is almost always poor because of the design of the game itself. I am not saying a good narrative can’t work in an open world game, or a game where the player can decide where to go and what to do, but it is extremely hard to pull off. This is for two main reasons:

 

Narratives Follow a Certain Linear Structure

 

In it’s simplest form, this is known as Freytag’s Triangle (or pyramid) and looks a bit like this:

Of course, there are often many smaller triangles and usually one or two big ones in a story. Another perspective is the three act structure, where the story goes through introduction, conflict, and then resolution. And while there are some differing thoughts about narrative structures, or where a unifying structure can be identified at all, most popular stories follow this formula. Non-linear stories still go through this process, although the pieces are out of order and it is up to the audience to piece them together.

For a narrative to follow this structure, it needs to be strict. The author essentially guides the audience through the story. In videogames that are non-linear or allow the player to explore, the author (or authors) lose this control over their narrative. It is hard to have your audience follow along when they can do as they please, which is why, for example, exploring the vaults in Fallout 3 and New Vegas proves to be a much better storytelling experience than the main quest line.

In the article, sources are conflicted about the quality of the original story, but from the reception it received on release, perhaps a more linear and cohesive story would have been better.

Non-linear storytelling does exist and it is done well (Sleep No More is a theatrical example of this) but it requires thought, care, and planning. For videogames, the key is to provide the player with agency within the narrative, but still keep the bounds strict. Dishonored, for example, does this by segmenting the story into chapters, or “missions”, where however the player chooses to deal with the misson (generally choosing to kill or spare the target), it does not change the main story line, but rather the feeling around it. Granted, to kill or not to kill is rather binary, but the more choices and possible outcomes available to the player, the harder it gets to keep the narrative cohesive.

So when it was decided that the player in Destiny should be able to visit whichever major location they want, it means that equal parts of the introduction, conflict, and resolution, needs to exist in each of those locations. Some games deal with this by segmenting the story between locations, effectively making each location a smaller narrative experience, like a vignette, whose resolution will draw them towards the main resolution of the over arching narrative.

MMOs, like World of Warcraft, generally do this often by making the player a bystander, or narrative tourist, being able to experience a story unfolding around them.

Since I haven’t played Destiny, I am not aware of how they dealt with a non-linear story, but I do get the feeling that players expect to directly influence a game’s story, and then they get mad when the story is not up to par. I feel this expectation of player agency makes it harder for studios to devote themselves to a linear narrative, even when it would be more efficient for them to do so. Of course, firing your writers before the deadline is also not a good idea.

 

Videogame Narrative: Usually Not Written by Writers

 

In a piece for The Guardian titled The first great works of digital literature are already being written, Naomi Alderman argues that videogames are, or at least have the potential to be, digital literature but the problem is that artists and techies often do not communicate. As she says:

“The problem is that people who like science and technology, and people who like storytelling and the arts have typically been placed in different buildings since about the age of 16.  We haven’t been taught how to admire each others’ work, to recognise excellence, or even to know that there is excellence in ‘the other culture’.”

When Bungie decided to go against their writers and have the producers of the game write the story from scratch, they replaced the artists with the non-artists. We all have stories, but it doesn’t mean we can communicate them. Although there have been some great storytelling in games in recent years, Alderman’s article highlighted another reason for Destiny’s poor story on release which is more common than not in videogames.

Although storytelling has come far from “save the princess”, or “don’t get caught by ghosts”, most stories in videogames are dull, both in delivery and in substance. What we generally have is a rehashing of tropes (some offensive) and/or stories that seem adapted from someone’s Dungeon’s and Dragon’s campaign. They serve the medium decently, but it’s not what I would call good. While videogames is a young medium, it is not that young, and story telling techniques haven’t evolved alongside graphic fidelity and game systems.

Few, if any, game writers are known by name, but until the industry gives them credit and trust, we can not expect them to learn, grow, and get better.

While I am very hopeful in general, mostly in part by games from independent developers and smaller studios, the development of Destiny should serve as a what not to do in the future. Don’t sacrifice your game’s story for game play (they should work together, linear or not) and trust your writers and artists to do what you hired them to do.

Especially if you want “…people to put the Destiny universe on the same shelf they put Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Star Wars.”

 

 

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