I often say that videogames are not a storytelling medium. They can’t tell tightly structured tales because the player gets in the way, and this is why there are no great game stories.
However I also often say that videogames are a great medium for storysense. An excellent example is the new Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare 3. This article looks at how Modern Warfare 3 conveys its sense of story, and how it sometimes gets it wrong, as a lesson for what you might do in your game.
(PS: Watch out, there are spoilers.)
Techniques of storysense revolve around portraying a world in motion. Short cut scenes that set tasks, scrolls and other discoverable items, user interface elements, alongside dialogue and incidentals are all key tools. The idea is to keep the player on the move, interested in the world while at the same time fascinated by the play.
Storysense is not unique to games. Marketing stories, poems, some albums such as Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, music videos, Disneyland rides and films like Koyaanisqatsi are all examples of works that have great storysense. They convey the feeling of a story, glimpses of key moments, develop a theme and a metaphor. Like impressionism compared to formal painting, they hint rather than show or tell.
Storysense is different to storytelling. Plot and character development are creative constants of dramatic narrative, but videogames are not a dramatic art form. Plot doesn’t really matter, nor character development. The player does not have to be told who her doll is or what she is supposed to feel. There are no acts, and the motivations of enemies don’t really have to be explained.
Videogames are the world’s thaumatic art form. They create an illusion of a world and invite a player to project into, participate and sometimes even believe in it. Storysense is a key part of weaving that believable illusion. (For more on this, see here and here.)
Modern Warfare 3’s Storysense
Whether replicating the opening of Enemy at the Gates (“The man with the rifle shoots…”) or something more modern, the Call of Duty games always look at breadth as well as depth. A more ordinary shooter might have a series of levels and enemies to beat. Call of Duty has a similar structure but the levels are the insides of crashing planes or standing under a collapsing Eiffel Tower.
So the design of the game is much less interested in creating a complex narrative as using the semblance of narrative to create a complex game. That’s the essence of great storysense, and here’s how Modern Warfare 3 does it:
Cut Scenes: Many games use cut scenes badly in an attempt to create drama. Dialogue sequences of little interest and soliloquies that go nowhere are the hallmarks of bad game writing because they don’t serve play. However this does not mean cut scenes are bad, just often badly applied. Modern Warfare 3 uses cut scenes for what they’re good at: Establishing goals.
Each cut scene in the game is an elaborate set of charts, schematics, video clips, and snippets of conversation. They focus on objectives rather than plot, so the player sees the task immediately, gets a sense of where he will be playing and a little bit of context. He has a reason to pay attention to the cut scene.
The focus on objectives allows the game to slip in asides from characters about the main enemy (Makarov) and his bad deeds without getting bogged down. This is exactly as it should be because it impresses context rather than detail and that is enough to get the player playing.
Different Characters, One Role: There is no such thing as a player character, only dolls that he controls that have clear roles that he can understand. Trying to turn a player into a hero or act in a manner contrary to their own personality is a waste of time.
In Modern Warfare 3, the player sees the world through the eyes of four people. He participates in the action, but questions of who and why are immaterial. At the same time, there is zero confusion over his role. Frost, Yuri and the other dolls are all the same entity, a soldier with a gun and a mission. None has special abilities that the others do not, none is particularly key to the scene and the player doesn’t really have to remember who he is supposed to be. This is a great design decision.
The game’s makers clearly understand that the art of the game is in the world around the player rather than the player himself, so they waste no time trying to make the player feel. By using alternating perspectives the player also has an easy rationale for why he is present at key events in a way that a single-doll game might struggle to explain, and so it feels natural.
Character Establishment: Great storysense establishes characters as a part of its world. Characters tend to be immediately readable so that the player gets a sense of who they are while playing.
Modern Warfare 3 does this well. Missions are mostly squad based rather than single player, so the player is often in the company of characters like Price and Soap. Price is older, with an epic moustache and a gruff voice. Soap is younger, but clearly experienced, and more sardonic. Their personas are both immediately understandable.
And that’s basically who they are all the way through the game. Does anything more need to be said? No. Does the player need to see them display different parts of their personality? Again, no. In a game a character does not serve the same function as it does in drama. It’s a part of the world rather than the focus of attention. The world is what matters.
Press X to Act: Taking control away or introducing special mini-game modes involving quick button presses is dangerous territory for any game because both feel unfair. However sometimes it’s okay if handled smoothly and without significantly interrupting the flow of play.
In Modern Warfare 3, holding the X button at specific moments triggers special actions. Press it at the right time and the player will leap onto a helicopter, plant a charge, climb up the inside of a wall and so on. It quickly becomes a readable part of any level, and no special action takes so long as to break flow.
The idea of special actions is to round out the game with more than just running and shooting, and it mostly works. The player gets to engage in momentary heroics or do cool things like calling down air strikes. The exact timing of when some of these actions are allowed is more arbitrary than it should be, but on the whole it’s fun rather than annoying.
Follow Me: The player is led through the whole game by a waypoint system. It reduces all levels to a series of dots that tell him which direction he needs to go in and how far away his objective is, which is exactly what the play brain needs to see the frame of the game and remain well orientated.
Many waypoints are attached to characters that he is supposed to follow. They also issue instructions, particularly during stealth sections or when the player needs to pick up a rocket-propelled grenade and take out a tank. The sense of story is maintained better here than if the game just tells him in the interface what his tasks are.
Following characters also leads the player through the world, which paints the backdrop of war. One particularly good example is when the player threads his way through a street battle with Soap and Price. In scenes reminiscent of many war movies, there are moments spent under a grille while prisoners are shot above him and sections where he sneaks past enemy tanks laying waste to resistance fighters. He is never forced to look at this, but it is there in the background.
Scripting: Scripting is a term meaning events that happen when the player triggers them. Simple examples include things like walking into a room and a door shutting behind you, enemies teleporting into view when you standing on a certain stone, or flipping a switch and a drawbridge rolls down.
However it gets more subtle than that. With clever scripting a game world can pause for a player to move along without slavishly waiting his every action. Great scripting is one way to show that the world is in motion and death is always a possibility.
Modern Warfare 3 does this very well. There are a large number of scripted events that happen throughout the game, but the exact action that triggers them is often not clear. So there is a sense of pressure, of things happening around the player which are somewhat dependent on his presence but could conceivably continue without him. When you play through a level a few times the scripting becomes more apparent, but that is inevitable.
Authorship: Finally, the game makes clever use of the user interface to communicate more than information to the player. In one sequence the player is Yuri trying to prevent a hostage crisis in an airport. However he is wounded and woozy, and eventually collapses and is rescued. And the user interface tells him ‘Objective Completed’ even though he has clearly failed.
This subtle piece of authorship conveys something human, and is important to the sense that the game is a creation made by people. Creations are more likely to attract empathy, which is something that many developers often misunderstand. Human moments connect the players to a game world because they are numinous. Some players stop holding the game at arm’s length as entertainment and instead it becomes something more artful than they had anticipated. The art brain gets involved, and so the weird sensation of thauma is possible.
There are also some moments when Modern Warfare 3 slips into full storytelling mode, and they work less well for the game than storysense (as is typically the case).
Here are some examples:
Scripted Failure: Sometimes the player fails through no fault of their own. Two particular examples are when a security guard fails to save the Russian president (and gets shot in the head) and when Delta Force tries to rescue his daughter. Both are long missions with time investment, and both are difficult. So there is an expectation of winning on the part of the play brain, which is snatched away.
All games are played to win. Players like a bit of promenade theatre to embellish the story, but only so far. In one sequence in Modern Warfare 3, for example, the player controls a father on a day out in London with his family moments before a chemical attack kills everyone. This is understood in the same vein as a promenade work like The Stanley Parable and it’s short.
But no player likes being jerked around. It does not leave a warm feeling when he has put significant effort into attaining a goal only to fail for reasons of narrative. Nor is it good for story. The hoped-for sense of character frustration doesn’t happen, and instead the player frustration at wasting time comes to the fore.
Interludes: Soap dies. As he does he reveals that Yuri has a previously-unknown connection with Makarov. Since the player is looking at all of this through Yuri’s eyes this creates an interesting momentary dissonance, and sets up a sequence where Price punches Yuri down some stairs and demands to know the truth.
What follows is a rather a longish sequence where the player is transported back to the past to witness the relationship between Yuri and Makarov told against the backdrop of events from earlier Modern Warfare games. He has a little control over Yuri at this point, and is really just watching the game play out a mini-drama to unnecessarily explain character motivations. It ultimately leads to the airport sequence mentioned above, but on the whole it just doesn’t work.
Interludes may seem important to advance plot, such as the sequence half way through Halo where the player has to wait to see the movie about the Flood or the interludes in Half Life 2 where the player must wait for Alyx Vance to stop talking before being allowed to progress.
Since plot is irrelevant in games, what interludes actually become is gaps in play where the game seems to be talking to itself. They are busywork and the player is reduced to simply nudging the drama along. What works better, and the first Modern Warfare game featured a brilliant example of this, is a mission set in the past.
Use every opportunity to create play, not propaganda.
Aside from a few moments when it veers into storytelling, Modern Warfare 3 is a really good example of what games do well. Its storysense carries the player to locations all around the world against the backdrop of an exciting conflict and places him under pressure to try and win from the first moment through to the last.
Even if you have much smaller budgets or different kinds of game, pay attention to how Modern Warfare 3 is structured. Variables roles, a focus on playing and doing against a backdrop and a relative lack of exposition make this a very tight game, and one well worth playing.
Though never quite as emotionally connected as some other games, it’s still an excellent example of what games are.