The most basic task of any fiction is to make the audience care. So what makes video games different? Or, better question, what makes them unique? Our favorite medium has the distinctive (and oftentimes missed) ability to involve the audience at an intimate level. When the player (that’s you) takes control of the hero, they become someone. You play a role just as an actor does on the stage.
And just as theatre is an illusion, so too is your role in a game’s story. After all, this is fiction; it was written by someone. But this illusion can be strengthened. It can be taken advantage of. It can be a powerful tool, a tool totally exclusive to video games. However, the illusion is a delicate one.
This is a series examining the unique opportunities afforded video games by this illusion, and how games can be built around it to carry themes and meanings just as deep as any novel or film. First up, maybe predictably, is Half Life 2—the storytelling techniques of which are borderline revolutionary. We think it’ll serve as a great basis for two reasons—first, many other games were directly influenced by it and second, pretty much everyone has either played or has a working knowledge of Half Life 2. Finally, we’ll close this article out with the fantastic Bioshock. In the future, we’ll be exploring games like Dear Esther, Limbo, Pathologic, Braid, Spec Ops, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Alpha Protocol, and Silent Hill 2.
The basics as far as we can tell:
The mantra in traditional writing, from novels to screenplays, is “show, don’t tell.” In games, don’t show, involve. When a game resorts to a cutscene, it becomes a movie, relinquishing all advantages that the medium affords it. The best platform for video game stories isn’t the cutscene, it’s the world.
Plot needs to be moved forward by the protagonist’s actions. This is actually true of most fiction, but here it is doubly important since the protagonist is the player. Story progression should depend on player involvement, not happenstance, NPCs, or any other authorial contrivance. The player must be an irreplaceable piece of the story.
Storytelling and gameplay need to be integrated and complimentary to one another. Or perhaps, a more visual way of putting it, everything needs to be pulling the player in one direction, to one unifying theme, meaning, or tone. For example, the Big Daddy/Little Sister mechanic helps prop the ideas of choice and innocence littered throughout Bioshock.
A game world built by discovery. Depth and understanding of the game world should be dependent upon player’s exploration. Being told the refugees of City 17 are miserable, or having it shown to you during a cutscene, isn’t nearly as involving as exploring the city and meeting them face to face.
HALF LIFE 2
I can already hear you groaning, Reader. Not another sermon on the altar of Half-Life 2. The Internet has enough of that already. Admittedly, there’s not much to say about the game that hasn’t been said elsewhere and more eloquently, but there’s also a very good reason that it’s been so thoroughly written about.
How do we kick this game off? G-man says a few creepy words in your head, you get off a train in City 17, pick up some litter, speed-run through the city, and finally meet up with Alyx Vance. Seems fairly straightforward. Deceptively so, however, because somewhere in between G-man and Alyx, Half-Life 2 manages to teach you everything you need to know about City 17, the Combine, Doctor Breen, the refugees, the underground resistance, and most importantly, how to play the game itself.
Before you even set foot in City 17, you know you’ve walked into a prison. You’re trapped in a cramped, narrow train compartment where you can’t interact with anything, aside from listening to the sob stories of the other occupants. If first impressions mean anything, and they do, Half-Life 2 clearly wants you to feel oppressed and powerless.
The train station only reinforces this. There’s trash on the floor, piles of abandoned luggage, and pictures of Doctor Breen on the walls which bear a striking resemblance to propaganda posters of Joseph Stalin. Not to mention the good doctor’s welcome address that plays on every screen in the city. Then there’s the Combine– faceless, inhuman, Darth Vader-esque soldiers who will beat you senseless if you stand too close to them.
Refugees peer at you through chain link fences, whispering quietly to each other as you pass. If you approach they’ll tell you to keep your voice down. You shouldn’t be seen talking. You may even hear a stray conspiracy theory about mass sterilization of the city. And that’s barely scratching the surface. The world is absolutely saturated with story information, waiting to be discovered. This is maybe a minute or two after G-man has wrapped up his opening speech, and already you know a ton about this place, who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and how they relate to one another.
After a brief interlude with Barney and Dr. Kleiner, you are confronted by a Combine soldier blocking your path. He knocks an empty soda can on the floor and orders you to pick it up, which you must do or suffer the consequences at the end of a nightstick. It may not be immediately obvious, but this one moment encapsulates a perfect synthesis of storytelling and game mechanics. Not only does it effectively seal the Combine as your sworn enemy, it also provides all the training you need to use the game’s physics engine, which will be needed for puzzle-solving in later levels. Half-Life 2 just schooled you on some of the most important information in the game and you barely even noticed.
The world-building only gets bigger from there. You exit the train station into a town square, dominated by the looming form of the Citadel in the distance. Perhaps you’ll visit it later. Right now, the rundown ghettos of City 17 are yours to explore. Everywhere you look there’s Combine marauding the streets, Scanner bots taking pictures from the air, armored vehicles, and roadblocks. You’ll find the citizens cowering in their homes, all clad in their identical uniforms, peering from their windows as the Combine ransack the apartment next door. You might even catch a glimpse through an open door of refugees at gunpoint, or a body in a pool of blood on the street, until a soldier chases you off. The world is full of little vignettes like this, from a peek into an interrogation room, to a deserted playground where children might play if it were safe. Or if there were any children at all.
Could this world have been depicted in a cutscene? Certainly. You could force-feed all of it to a player, but at the dire expense of their involvement. The fact that you could so easily overlook the finer details in a game is actually what makes those details special when you don’t overlook them. You have to take some initiative to see the whole story that Half-Life 2 has to offer. You have to travel off the beaten path, into the slums of City 17. You have to meet the refugees in their homes. You have to get on the bad side of the Combine. This is one of the unique aspects of game stories, and among the most compelling. The details of the world must be left up to the player to discover, or not discover. That freedom matters. If the player doesn’t have that freedom then they invest less of themselves in the experience. The more we are allowed to find and affect the story for ourselves, the more meaningful that story will be.
Bioshock’s first twenty minutes are awesome. Few games come even close the capturing the magic of stepping into Rapture for the first time. The game’s opening seconds take place on a plane. That plane crashes, and the player is thrown into the Atlantic Ocean, alone, with nowhere to go.
The fire closes in around the player, forcing him or her to turn right, facing a… lighthouse, standing tall, protruding out of the dark Atlantic. Inside, the game never shoves the story down your throat, but instead implies it, laying subtle hints to a larger story.
In games like Final Fantasy XIII, you learn about the world via a bloated in-game encyclopedia. In Bioshock, you find the world written on the walls, and hear it through audio tapes and the nonsensical mutterings of the crazy splicers surrounding you. You’re a detective, piecing together what happened. The game doesn’t have to tell you that civilization fell apart. You see it.
Happy New Year. From your surroundings, you can intuit that the fall happened during the 1959 New Year. The creepy masks that many splicers wear were what they planned on wearing for the masquerade ball. It was then, during or right before the ball, that Rapture fell apart, and insanity took over. Ghostly flashbacks help fill out the backstory even more.
What’s impressive, is the way Bioshock hints at theme. It starts with the statue on the surface, then the slide show on the way down. In Rapture it’s all semiotic; it’s the busts, the banners, the signs that instill a sense of meaning and purpose to Bioshock’s adventure. It’s subtle. So subtle, a hurried player might rush through the game without ever noticing it’s there.
Plasmids, Plasmids, Plasmids! Plasmids are first introduced on your way down from the surface, as part of an advertisement before the slide show. It introduces the gimmick in a way that helps build the world. The plasmids, as a mechanic, help establish why ADAM is so dear to Bioshock’s denizen. You’ve been relying on them the entire game, so you can see why ADAM is so valuable. It’s this desire for ADAM that sparked the collapse of Rapture and the war between Fontaine and Ryan. That conflict is the basis for the entire story. Here, we see story and mechanics weaved together. Same can be said for Big Daddy and Little Sister.
Just like the plasmid mechanic, the Big Daddy and Little Sister are intro’d slowly. First, you only get a glimpse. Then you see just how deadly a Big Daddy is when a splicer tries to steal ADAM from a Little Sister. Only after that sequence are you finally asked to take one down, and only then is the entire mechanic finally introduced. It isn’t seamless, or even as excellent has Half Life 2’s own endeavors, but there’s an obvious attempt to intertwine story and gameplay here.
Bioshock has a habit of establishing a great amount of lore around each of its characters. It does this through dialogue and audio tapes, sure, but it also manages to establish character through the environment. One of the game’s first big bads is Dr. Steinman, the plastic surgeon turned lunatic doctor. Before you see him, you see his handiwork all around you. This is Steinman’s realm. The sense of dread is palpable. The number of lives butchered at the end of his scalpel is clear. When you finally meet Steinman, he’s actually quite normal looking, boring even. He’s a maniac toting a machine gun, nothing more. The game does the same thing with Sander Cohen a few hours later, and Ryan a few hours after that.
Two things interest me about this: how much a character can be built by the environment without the help of any dialogue; and how the game then plays with our expectation of Fontaine. We see Fontaine’s in-game portrait before we meet him in person. Mostly, he’s been established as a mafiaso type and not much more. Maybe a bit more threatening than others, but slightly less menacing, slightly less sinister, slightly less… insane.
Then we meet him in person. The man has absorbed so much ADAM that’s he become something more/less human. The reveal does a wonderful job of playing with our expectations.
The ending movies (there are different endings depending on how many little sisters you saved/harvested) are just as disappointing as the end boss. But other than those last few minutes, Bioshock does a great job taking advantage of video game storytelling.
So that’s Half Life 2 and Bioshock. Probably two of the most talked about games of all time. Next time, we’ll be taking a closer look at Limbo and Silent Hill 2.
Written by AJ Cooper & Mason Miller