Fetch quests, you’ve got to love them. Well you haven’t got to love them, but if you love video games you’re probably going to have to learn to at least tolerate them. Play any game for any length of time and sooner or later one of the characters is going to ask you to go to a place, get an object for them and bring it back to them. There’s a reason that this character has asked you to do that and usually that reason is because the people who made the game ran out of story yet felt that the game needed to be longer.
This kind of problem is par for the course with video games stories, torn as they are between three competing priorities.
The first of these is the need for a game to provide value for money to its players and this is typically defined in terms of hours of content. Games pride themselves on their run time in the same way that a restaurant might take pride in doling out oversized portions. In the simple marketing speak of games marketing more is more. Hours of content up for grabs, is it good? Is it important? Who cares, look how much time it takes. No game ever took pride in being short. This can vary wildly of course from action games or rogue-likes where a single run through might take less than an hour to sagas like Wasteland 2 or Dragon Age: Origins that can take around 80 hours.
The second factor is how the story accommodates the chief gameplay mechanics. So for example if your game is built around shooting people in the face, as a lot of games are, then you have to tell a story about that. This poses problems, because there are only so many situations in life where shooting everybody in the face will resolve the problems. You can see this problem manifest itself in the Mass Effect series. As the series went on the diminishing returns of such a game being built on a foundation of hiding behind low walls and shooting people took their toll. As highly regarded as the Mass Effect series was it boasted a completion rate only around 50 per cent, which means as good as it was, most people didn’t see the game to the end. What your game is built to be on a mechanical level limits your scope for the length of time you can expect players to hang in there. An RPG can last tens of hours, while a corridor shooter will often struggle to find fun ways to fill six.
The third factor is the nature of the story itself – the story that the developer wanted to tell when they made the game. So we might look at the recent Tomb Raider for example, a game which is designed to tell the story of how a young Lara Croft goes from bedraggled victim to implacable heroine. That’s the way the story was planned to go, but because of how the game plays, as a third person shooter with a few platform elements, young Lara hasn’t gone more than an hour before she’s creeping up on men and strangling them with her bow or shrugging off gunshot wounds in pitched battles. To compound matters, because the game has to last a decent amount of time she’s murdering these guys and failing to escape from the island for what feels like an age, to the point where she’s killed so many men that you wonder why the rest don’t just down tools and run for the hills.
We can also see these problems in Alien: Isolation. Without wanting to spoil anything, Alien: Isolation has a story that can best be described as dragging quite badly. By the end of the game, from a purely story point of view, it has outstayed its welcome. The designers erred on the side of padding the game out for longer play time rather than going for a neater ending and so the story suffered, which is disappointing given the quality of the design and attention to detail of the setting.
Of course there is a flipside to this: when the game is good you want more and you don’t want it to end. So what is to be done? One solution that Alien: Isolation employs to an extent, and which the early Call Of Duty games also used to good effect, is to augment the main story with additional content. In Alien: Isolation this means missions and side stories based around the mechanics of the main game but set outside it. In the first Call of Duty games this meant that the story of each of the main characters was unrelated to any main narrative and quite short. This solution means that you’re getting more of the game if you want it, but in smaller, more manageable chunks.
In some games, such as Watch_Dogs or GTA V, the padding takes the form of open world malarkey that can be avoided. Usually these take the form of mini-games, side quests and random acts of violence. You can make a straight shot for the end of the story and it won’t take too long, or you can wander about to your heart’s content in the sandbox. This is a good compromise.
Another alternative is to offer more than one way to play through the game, important divergent choices that mean you can play the game again and everything will be a little different. To its credit this is something Wolfenstein: The New Order does.
Of course the somewhat obvious solution is to just make fuller, stronger stories, but this is harder to do than it looks. One game that managed it with aplomb is Batman: Arkham Asylum, but in order to do it the game had to draw upon the large supporting cast from the Batman comics. For a team of developers without all that background to call on and with hours of space on a storyboard to fill, the temptation to just have a character send the protagonist off to retrieve a McGuffin from wherever must be strong.
The idea that games should be shorter in general is one that has been going around a lot in recent years, with games like Limbo and The Walking Dead being cited as examples of a punchier narrative delivered in a cheaper, more manageable form. There is merit to this approach but there is a risk in short games with a narrative focus that the elements of the game as a challenge and test of skill become sidelined and a game becomes a thing that you experience rather than play. A short game lacks the time to teach you how to play and nobody likes a game that slaps you round the head with the end sequence just as you were hitting your stride.
A long story does not have to be a bad thing, of course. Some games that take ages to complete still manage to have few problems keeping a gripping narrative going. Series like Final Fantasy, Neverwinter Nights and individual games like Vampire: Bloodlines and Planescape: Torment all boast great stories that take days to unfold. If we look at games that don’t even have defined storylines but write their stories on the fly, such as the Civilisation, Football Manager or Total War series we see games that create drama as they go and which can hold players spellbound for hours at a time for as many sessions as it takes to reach the end, where for many players they’ll just start again. The capacity of these games to ravenously consume time in the tens, even hundreds of hours, would seem to indicate that they have locked onto something that mainstream games are missing.
Perhaps the problem for mainstream games lies in the way that they are seen as a visual medium rather than a cerebral one. It is easy to make a comparison between games and movies when perhaps in terms of form and structure games are more closely tied to literature. Movies are rolling entertainment, but literature, like a game, demands the attention of the audience in order to proceed. We can pick up and put down a book, and we can do so with a game too, but it would be unusual to do this with a movie. Games also naturally fit into the chapter structure of books, albeit having arrived at this structure on their own in the form of levels. Cinematic isn’t something that games should see as an aspiration, it is just one approach among many, and designers should be aware that there are all sorts of reasons you don’t make eight hour long movies.
For games to develop as a storytelling medium something has to change. We are seeing progress in short-form indie games and in the long-form RPGs and strategy games, but in the middle, in the land of the ten hour mass-market action games that make up so much of mainstream gaming, we’re still waiting on something better than Half Life 2.