Thoughts about storytelling in games

There are different games and different players. I see myself as someone who is best gripped by a game with a strong story. Yet, narratives in games have their limits. In today’s post, I’ll share my thoughts on narrative in games and what happens if those limits are met – or even exceeded.

The first game where I’ve actually been gripped by the story is WarCraft III. Arthas’ story is probably just another cliché about how the path to hell is paved by good intentions but it worked well enough. There’s more to say about the story of WarCraft universe – and I’ll return it later in this post.

Another major hit was Crysis (2007) and its sequels. Crysis was (and still is) to gaming what James Cameron’s Avatar is to movie industry: a piece that pushed the technological boundaries. I admit I’ve never been much into first-person shooters but Crysis had a story that appealed to my Sci-Fi tastes. While everyone praised the graphics and the optimalization of the game engine and whatnot, I’ve eventually came to appreciate the story more (and even more in the sequels).

As a boy, I had a lot of fun with GTA2. To me, this was pure destruction yet the series became more story-centered with the sequels, even if it stayed on the criminal side.

Another major thing were the Witcher games, especially Witcher 3. The ability to choose how to approach some problems, especially as it often meant trying to figure out what’s the lesser evil, led to several possible outcomes. The results of several storylines had a major impact on which characters will survive or not.

Yet, all of these were done pretty much as standalone ‘instant’ stories. There is some continuity between the individual games, yes, but the games were story-complete at release (and, in case of Witcher, the DLCs added some side-stories).

This is pretty much the limit I’ve mentioned: once the story is told, it’s hard to just add something on it without risking inconsistencies or running into the limits of storytelling. There’s only so much that can be done, even in a somewhat-dynamic game. (Dis)Appearance of a few characters is probably relatively easy but shuffling the presence of whole factions and/or armies based on the outcome would be troublesome.

Which gets me back to WarCraft. Specifically, World of WarCraft. A game that is nearing the 15-year mark and is still active. The first two games were built on humans vs. orcs base, with various allies thrown in the mix. Those eventually formed the two main factions of WoW: the Alliance and the Horde. And, due to their past, they were in a state of a cold war – rivalry where no one wanted to start a real war.

The first two expansions wrapped up two major stories from WarCraft3 and the third a villain from a background lore but the game was at its prime and it was to continue. Thus, in the fourth expansion, they let the cold war escalate into a real war.

And that where the game reached its storytelling limits. Hard-coded with two factions with millions of players at one or both sides, a result of a war could never be satisfactory. Furthermore, it was limited by the fact both faction needed to survive. Thus, the consequences at the end of this war became very limited, leaving a bitter taste.

If there’s something I know from reading books – which don’t face these limitations – is that the balance of power shifts when a conflict ends. That’s the main result of a war. A war cannot really end without any real change to the structure of power.

But game design prevented these changes. So, another world-ending threat was brought in and the dissatisfactory ending of a war was swept under the rug. Only to reappear after the threat was dealt with. The latest expansion faces a harsh critique from players on all fronts except environment design (because the guys designing the game zones are doing a hell of a good job and the pitfalls of the storytelling don’t affect it much).

What – and why – is the problem, you might ask.

First, the fact that a leader of a faction that is hard-coded into the game faces different boundaries than an outright villain. This, then, sets a potentially-dangerous precedent: if being the leader of a major faction lets you get away with using weapons of mass destruction or being outright racist… where is the line, then?

Second, this vastly limits the reactions of other characters and hinders their development because their actions will face a compromise between their own character and the need to preserve the status quo (or balance of power, if you like that term more) – the continued existence of exactly two main factions.

Third, as the Battle for Azeroth expansion shows, once the cycle repeats, it’ll only get worse: the next faction-spawned villain must be worse than the previous one to make up for the power and experience growth of the heroes. This, in turn, only magnifies the previous two points: characters are forced into out-of-character inaction and betrayal of their own values for the sake of game mechanics (preserving the factions) and worse war crimes are brushed under the rug without consequences. Even in the second ‘cycle’, it’s getting out of hand and creates additional divide among the playerbase as the story nudges them into choosing a side. Should this cycle repeat the third time in another 3-5 years, it’ll go beyond absurd.

As someone who keeps trying to understand the countless aspects of storytelling, the current situation can serve as a warning, and a reminder: actions should have consequences, and those consequences should make sense and be appropriate for the scale of the transgression. Yes, the results and approaches will be different based on what type of conflict it is: diplomatic (still without a direct clash), cold war/arms race without a direct confrontation, or all-out war. These are all different – and the ends should reflect this. As World of WarCraft shows, cold war approach to an actual war is obviously out of place.

Okay, I’m wrapping this up before it turns into a rant. I’ll welcome your thoughts on any aspect mentioned in this post: storytelling limits, (lack of) consequences, your personal examples of either good or bad approach… sharing these opinions is how we can learn more.

For now, see you next time!

One thought on “Thoughts about storytelling in games

  1. Pingback: Writing: learning from Warcraft's mistakes? | Tomas, the wandering dreamer

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