The Importance of a Good Story

Nov 12, 2007

Ever since I completed Half-Life 2: Episode Two, I've been thinking about how stories are used in video games. Plenty of games need no story to be fun (Pac-Man, Tetris, Bejeweled, etc.). Similarly, there are games that revolve around a strong storyline. Looking through my computer game collection, I find that only a handful fall into this latter category:

  • Half-Life (1, 2, Episode 1, and Episode 2)
  • Myst
  • System Shock 2

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the stories in any of the other games I own. There are a number of titles I considered for the above short list (the Splinter Cell series, Elder Scrolls 3 and 4, Bioshock, and others), but none of them were as memorable as the titles listed. I consider Half-Life 2 to be the pinnacle of the games I've played, and so will use it as my working example.

One thing makes the Half-Life 2 world so gripping: a believable and memorable cast of characters. In order to create such a cast, three core things are required:

Good Writers
This is a no-brainer. Without a team of good writers, any potential blockbuster story can fall flat. And most importantly, they must share a consistent vision of the world they are building. One of the hallmarks of the Half-Life universe is the inclusion of some ever-present mystery. There are always unanswered questions in the game, and Half-Life 2 is chock full of them. In fact, I've read a number of reviews of HL2 that derided the game on the seemingly cryptic storyline. Valve, in their typical genius fashion, was building a foundation from which to expand the story in Episodes 1 and 2. Keeping a number of unanswered questions in the story sparks the imagination of the player, and provides something to build on in the future. Engaging the viewer's imagination is the key; do that and you're golden.
Strong Voice Acting
The voice acting in Half-Life 2 is among the best in the industry (System Shock 2, Bioshock, and a few others are similarly excellent). Being able to bring strong emotion to an animated character is undoubtedly harder than it looks. Valve's inclusion of the developer commentary in the game provides a glimpse of this. Merle Dandridge (the actress portraying Alyx Vance) is interviewed a number of times throughout the commentary, and she discusses the challenges (and benefits) of voice acting. The performance that she gives at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is nothing short of stunning.
Character Emotion
As gaming technology improves, the portrayal of character emotion has similarly gotten better. The in-game character models in Half-Life 2 are very sophisticated, and have a wide range of available expressions. Watch carefully during the various story-driven scenes in the Half-Life 2 games; each character's posture, face, and actions all help believably portray that character's current emotional state. This attention to detail builds an increasingly believable situation. As such, I become a part of the story; I am Gordon Freeman. His friends are my friends; his situations are my problems to solve. It gets no more gripping than that for me.

Are there other games that stick out in your mind as having a strong story? I'd be interested in hearing what other memorable titles you can think of.

8:57 AM on Nov 13, 2007
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem had a great story. You control Alex Roivas, who has come back to her family's estate in Rhode Island because her grandfather has been killed. Determined to find out what happened to him, she stays in the mansion searching for clues. For each clue she finds, a new chapter of the "Tome of Eternal Darkness" begins, where you play as someone else in history who has also found this same tome. You go through all kinds of places from ancient Rome to Medieval France to colonial Rhode Island (and much more). The gameplay is great too. In addition to a health and magic meter, there is a sanity meter. When you see enemies your sanity drops a little, and you have to kill them and do a finishing move to regain sanity. When your sanity gets too low, all kinds of crazy things can happen: a blue screen of death, a fake game over screen, your limbs start falling off as you walk around. It's really something you have to see to understand. And the magic spells are formed by combining these Runes that you collect, which gives you some freedom to make up spells (or you can wait until you find the "codex" for that spell, which tells you which runes to combine). Very early in the game you have to pick one of three artifacts, which determines which of three warring gods will be the enemy. There is kind of a rocks/paper/scissors relationship among the three gods (actually I think they're called "ancients"). To get the best ending you have to play through the game going through all three paths (although I'm not sure that the ultimate ending is worth it unless you like replaying the same games over again). I know you got a Wii recently, you can probably find this game at a GameStop or on eBay for pretty cheap (it came out in 2001 or 2002). Of course, you would need a GameCube controller and a GameCube memory card to play it, which would increase the cost a bit if you don't already have one.
9:03 AM on Nov 13, 2007
Oh and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time had a great story and great gameplay. Unfortunately the sequel was terrible. (And I never played the third one in the series because of the 2nd one being so botched, although I've heard it was decent.) You can probably track down the GameCube version of the game rather easily too, if you're interested.
9:49 AM on Nov 13, 2007
I do own the PC version of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and I agree that it was a pretty good story. The sequel looked way different than the first one, and based on some negative reviews, I steered clear of it. That Eternal Darkness title sounds great. I'll try to pick it up some time...
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