There’s been an increasingly worrying trend in gaming where ‘triple A’ titles (the multi-million dollar projects from publishers like EA) have started to feel less like games and more like semi-interactive movies. The Metal Gear Solid games are probably the most infamous example of this, but anyone who follows the industry at all will be able to name some more: God of War, Gears of War, War of War (sorry), or the recently-released Asura’s Wrath. The most ‘cinematic’ aspects of these games are almost entirely non-interactive, usually consisting of the player pressing a button combination in order to trigger an impressive but gameplay-free cut scene.
It’s not too hard to see why developers do this. We’ve got so much technology and graphical horsepower now, so why not use it to make your game more like a Hollywood action movie? As many people have pointed out, the main objection is that people who want to see a Hollywood movie will go and see a Hollywood movie. Games don’t need to ape the narrative techniques of adifferent medium, nor should they.
I’d like to hold up Dark Souls as an excellent example of how storytelling in video games can be true to the medium while still being compelling and emotionally satisfying. That might seem like a surprising choice given that Dark Souls is famous for being an unashamedly hardcore hack-and-slash (a genre not known for possessing complex storylines), but bear with me here. Dark Souls would make for a lousy movie or fantasy novel, but as a game, it excels.
Ever since videogames got complex enough to tell a halfway decent story, there’s been a serious problem negotiating the divide between gameplay and storytelling. Broadly speaking, developers have ‘solved’ the problem by relegating storytelling to cutscenes, with gameplay elements going out the window as soon as you lose control of the character. (Which is why they didn’t just use a Phoenix Down on Aeris. She died in a cutscene, where getting impaled or hit with a fireball or shot in the face is more than just a minor inconvenience.) This works up to a certain point: I doubt anyone would argue that Final Fantasy VII’s crude 3D models could have been used to create a dramatic death scene, after all.
But we’ve come a long way since then. We no longer need to have elaborate pre-rendered FMVs to convey a sense of drama in a game. So why do so many games still slap an iron wall between gameplay and story? Why is it so common to have a game’s main character do something in a custscene that they could never do in-game? The implication seems to be that what the player sees on screen is a very elaborate version of tabletop miniatures; yes, you might have seen your character engage in a fairly pedestrian fight using pre-canned attack animations, but here’s what was really going on. You don’t even have to use your imagination, because the developers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a flashy cutscene for your benefit!
Enter Dark Souls. It does have cutscenes, but they usually consist of little more than a brief introductory clip for a particularly impressive boss. Most importantly, they’re almost always relegated to the beginning of a big fight. Delivering the final blow to a 30-foot iron golem does not trigger a cutscene in which your character suddenly develops the ability to backflip up a vertical wall in order to accommodate a more spectacular death scene. Better still, there is no cheating when it comes to the fight itself. The golem does not blunder under a series of three identical traps that you drop onto its head in ponderous succession. You fight it the same way you fight every other enemy in the game. There is no awkward layer of abstraction between what the game engine can handle and what the developers ideally wanted you to see. (Note that those impressive cutscenes will almost never show your character finishing off a boss by dropping a chandelier on its head or whatever; in fact, the chandeliers themselves tend to be conspicuously absent once a cutscene starts. The implication seems to be that the whole chandelier business never really happened in the first place, thus negating what the player did in favour of what the player just watched. I probably don’t need to point out why this is a problem.)
Story progression in Dark Souls is handled in a similar way. There’s an entirely optional boss fight that involves killing Gwyndolin, the last living god of the game’s setting and the son of the mythology’s Zeus stand-in. At no point does some random NPC character come up to you with an optional quest: ‘Go against the gods and fight Gwyndolin Y/N?’. You do not access the boss fight by accruing enough points on some arbitrary morality meter. No, you trigger the fight by setting foot in the tomb of Gwyn, who is Gwyndolin’s father – which is exactly his stated reason for then attacking you. Why you did it isn’t important, and the game doesn’t ascribe any motive to your character’s actions. You’ve profaned Gwyn’s tomb, and thus his son is going to kill you. Maybe the player did it because they decided their character would go against the gods, or maybe they did it to get Gwyndolin’s unique armour set. Or, hell, maybe they did it by accident. It doesn’t matter. There is an exact one-to-one relationship between the player’s actions and the game’s story progression.
You can find examples of this kind of design philosophy throughout Dark Souls. Talking to a merchant or trainer and then walking away before your transaction is finished will elicit an irritated comment from them. (You don’t choose ‘Act like a dick’ from a pre-set dialog menu, either; you just walk away.) The player can join ‘Covenants’ with various NPC characters, all of which place certain restrictions on the player’s actions. Attack an NPC member of the same covenant, and the covenant leader will kick you out. Again, what you choose to do in gameplay terms is directly responsible for the progression of that particular subplot.
Now, this kind of thing is obviously only possible in a certain kind of game. Dark Souls features a silent protagonist, which is what makes things like the Gwyndolin fight possible. Since your character has no in-game motive for triggering the fight, the developers are free to have Gwyndolin react only to the player’s direct actions (i.e. deciding to step over the threshold of his father’s tomb). But I would argue that this isn’t really an issue. A blank-slate protagonist is usually a terrible idea in a movie or novel, but Dark Souls is a videogame. In a videogame, a blank-slate protagonist makes perfect sense.
I really wish more developers would focus on making this kind of game rather than enthusiastically following the trend for Nathan Drake/Gears of War/Modern Warfare clones (delete as appropriate depending on genre). At some point, borrowing elements from another medium crosses the line into just recreating that medium from scratch. The end result of that kind of storytelling is the complete negation of videogames as a creative medium. Is that really what we mean when we talk about the gaming industry’s untapped potential?