BioShock Screenshot

Storytelling is an art form in and of itself, just like painting or music. And of all the art forms that comprise video games, story is often at the low end on the totem of importance. This is perfectly acceptable to me-games are more often than not held up by mechanical and/or aesthetic components, leaving the story as icing on the cake. However, this does not mean that any game that even attempts to have a deep and/or dynamic story can automatically be heralded as storytelling mastery. To do so belittles the craft. You could have a fantastic cake that gets topped with shit, and while the cake itself might be a perfectly fine baked good, you still need to contend with the fact that there is shit on your cake.

A game's story need not be an epic tale or some groundbreaking piece of fiction, although it certainly can be. The story simply needs to compliment the game's other components and bring a sense of coherence to help keep the player immersed. A sudden jolt of "WTF is going on?" can shatter a playing experience, whereas a good one can possibly overshadow the game's other flaws.

So what makes a good game story? Well, obviously there's no concrete answer to that. What I can do however, is go through some games that I think did it right, and some that I think made it seem like they did it right when they actually screwed it up hardcore.

BioShock's main story concerning the ramifications of a (theoretical) objectivist utopia is thought-provoking and haunting at the same time. The motivation and fallout of Andrew Ryan's vision are all around the player, and virtually everything revolves around dealing with his influence. Even the smaller subplots all revolve around Rapture's ideals in some way, showing how Ryan's larger plans and their ultimate failure impacted all of the normally faceless citizens. BioShock takes an idea, shows how it might have come to fruition, and then slams the player with the horrifying results. Getting thrown into a dystopia is a common occurrence in games, but fully understanding why it came about is not. BioShock manages to present us with something that could have been a run-of-the-mill FPS (which it certainly is in gameplay terms) but was much more due to some fantastic writing.

Half-Life 2 is one of my favorite games. It's also one of the most influential, counting BioShock among its spiritual offspring. However, I never understood why it gets accolades for storytelling or for Gordon Freeman as a character. It doesn't really do anything that's outright bad, but it just…doesn't tell much of a story at all. And then the player is expected to connect in some way with all of this while knowing virtually nothing about what is happening. I understand that leaving the player in the dark is intentional on Valve's part, but I think their plan really failed here.

Half-Life 2 Screenshot

There are several moments throughout the game that are meant to be emotional, but most of them just aren't simply because I had no clue what was happening. Most of these have to do with scenes involving Gordon and Alyx's growing "affection" for each other, and the lack of any real background information or any interaction on Gordon's part just makes things awkward. I like to think I understand what Valve is going for here with the "aura of mystery" concept, and maybe it's just me, but the "mute physics expert is somehow the savior of humanity" thing never really worked in my eyes.

To date, Dragon Age: Origins is the only perfect score that I have given in my time writing for GameCritics, and its writing is what propelled it to the top. A clinic in how to craft an epic, overarching tale that keeps the player interested for all of those 60 hours, Dragon Age nails every note, crosses every T, and dots every I for what a RPG story should be. Great opening setup? Check. Interesting characters that are a joy rather than a chore to interact with? Huge world with interesting side characters and tons of backstory? Check. Steady buildup to an exciting and potentially excruciating endgame? You bet. No matter which path through the game is chosen, the experience is almost always together beautifully.

I liked Kingdom Hearts 2 overall (mainly due to some of the best 3D combat I've ever seen) but it has quite a few problems. The pacing is awful, re-used content from the first game is everywhere, and there's a huge difficulty spike at around the halfway point that sends the game's mood from "Man, are these things ever going to fight back?" to "GODDAMN YOU SPEAR GUY". However, the game's story is where it fails the hardest, resulting in an incoherent mishmash of Disney material and the worst kinds of JRPG tropes.

It leans a little too heavily on the notion that the player has played Chain of Memories, the GBA prequel that sets up the main game's narrative. Without knowing what happens in that game a lot of things in Kingdom Hearts 2 are fuzzy to say the least. Things like why Sora was stuck in that chamber, why Organization XIII is bothering to screw around with the other worlds when all they want is Sora to kill things, why they suddenly decide that killing him is OK, and what happened to their five missing members are all pretty much left unaddressed. It doesn't matter if it's explained in the journal or not-exposition needs to be sewn into the narrative as much as possible, and in Kingdom Hearts 2 it's as if they drew some guys in black cloaks and then fired the writing staff.

I've been heartily signing Aquaria's praises since I reviewed it last year, and I have every intention of continuing to do so until all of the GameCritics staffers get off their butts, get the game, then get back on their butts and play it. Aquaria's narrative is simple and elegant, just like the game itself. The player explores and learns along with Naija, experiencing her hopes, fears, and dreams throughout the game. Every now and then a little moment of introspection or backstory is thrown in but not enough to bog the game down in the slightest. The skill with which Naija's story is told is a big reason why I liked the game so much. If a good story is just icing on the cake in a 2D action game, that's some mighty good icing.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots Screenshot

Metal Gear Solid 4 (MGS4) is the absolute grandaddy of narrative train wrecks. Now granted, it is hamstrung somewhat by developments in Metal Gear Solid 2, but that's an excuse for being bad, not for being an utterly ridiculous piece of shit. It's even more of a shame considering the level of storytelling in the original Metal Gear Solid. In MGS1 we see Snake as a disillusioned warrior constantly questioning if he believes in what he's fighting for. The enemies and even his friends constantly deceive and betray him to try and get him to do their bidding and hope that he never finds out. The intrigue surrounding all of this kept me interested from beginning to end. Then you take your shirt off and fistfight the guy that voiced Leonardo in the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. That, my friends, is a game story.

MGS4 is a mess of holes, bad characters, and overly drawn-out cutscenes all wrapped up in a vague political message that never quite makes itself clear. I personally have no problem with cutscenes as a method to tell parts of the story that just can't be expressed by the in-game engine, but god dammit they need to be good, especially if they're this long. And to be clear, this isn't even an exposition problem-the game's final hours are a veritable exposition orgy. It's that everything being explained has been twisted and contrived around so many times that it begins to resemble the narrative equivalent of a Jackson Pollack painting. The problems with MGS4's story could be (and probably have been somewhere on the internet) a 10-page essay on their own, so I'll stop here, but if someone wants to bring up the finer points of MGS4's WTFness in the comments, I'm all for it.

As far as old school adventure games go, The Longest Journey is an exclusive platinum card member. And since an adventure game is so heavily tied to its story, you can guess that this has a top notch effort in that department. Following the story of April Ryan as she slowly learns of a parallel world in which magic exists, we get to see one of the best narratives ever to grace gaming. April's thoughts and feelings are conveyed with the utmost sincerity, the feeling of shock when transitioning from one world to the other sticks every single time it happens, and the steady drip of plot advancement is worked exquisitely from the beginning to end. Sure it's got a few problems, like awkward "fight" scenes or April being able to walk right into the main antagonist's office without anyone noticing, but none of those things matter in the face of all the game does right. That's something I wish I could say for Heavy Rain.

So there you have it. Seven games, all of which I've seen receive accolades for storytelling, but only four of which deserve it. What about you? What games have taken an unrelenting crap on your cake?


Richard Naik

Richard Naik

Born and raised in St. Louis, MO, Richard received his first console (the NES) at the age of six, and from that point on games have been an integral part of his life, whether it's been frittering summers away with the likes of Mario, Mega Man, and the Zerg or partaking in marathon sessions of Halo, Team Fortress 2 or Left 4 Dead. After being a longtime reader of GameCritics, Richard joined the staff in March of 2009, and over the years Richard grew into the more prominent role of part-time podcast host.

In 2016, he spearheaded a complete rebuild of the GameCritics.com website, earning him the title of Chief Engineer.

His gaming interests are fairly eclectic, ranging from 2D platformers to old-school-style adventure games to RPGs to first-person shooters. So in other words, he’ll play pretty much anything.
Richard Naik

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26 Comments on "Why does game storytelling have such low standards?"

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DLPB
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DLPB
3 years 5 months ago

MGS4 is a train wreck of plot holes, conveniences, deus ex machina and bad scripting. It got nearly everything wrong, even the game play. The only people who don’t realise this are the ones that aren’t as intelligent as the ones like me and the author of this article.

It is that simple. The real test of this game will be that of time, and unlike MGS1 (well paced, scripted and presented), MGS4 will die.

Richard Naik
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Richard Naik
5 years 11 months ago

@Dan

I thought Dragon Age was another Tolkien rip-off too, but it really is much deeper than that. It’s the jewel of BioWare’s empire as far as I’m concerned.

And my point regarding JRPGs was not so much that the early ones weren’t unique, but that I wasn’t ignoring JRPGs as a whole. Like I said, FFVI was on my good list too, but I wanted to expand to other genres and there were already two RPGs in the article.

Dan Johansen
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5 years 11 months ago
I agree. JRPG’s story elements have been done to death by this day and age. But so has the military approach that US action and FPS games have done and of course the Tolkien inspired shallowness. I think we’re at a cross road where basically everything has been done to death, which is frustrating when approaching new games. Some of us want cut-scenes to give us the emotional punch, while some wants everything to happen in real time which in my opinion has a lot less impact on the depth of the story. Like with Bioshock; I thought it was… Read more »
Richard Naik
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Richard Naik
5 years 11 months ago
@Dan For one, American FPS and action games are not the only examples of good storytelling I gave. Longest Journey’s studio is Norwegian, and it has very little “action” of any kind. Dragon Age also doesn’t qualify as a pure action title. I also don’t understand what you mean by “standard way” or the notion that I ignored RPGs. Dragon Age is certainly an RPG, and I did include a JRPG in Kingdom Hearts 2 if that’s what you meant. I actually considered discussing FFVI as well, but there were already two RPGs on the list and I wanted to… Read more »
Dan Johansen
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5 years 11 months ago
I can see in this discussion that it is talk about how games always just steal story telling from cinema, and the only examples of good story telling mentioned are the US FPS and Action games. What about RPG’s like Final Fantasy VI, VII and IX? These games ignore cinema pretty wholeheartedly and do their best to make their own story telling and progress. They’re not based on the standard build ups from movies at all. I find them to be very innovative. There are also other games like Shadow Hearts Covenant, which in my opinion, in certain scenes, deliver… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 2 months ago

Your comment about BioShock is understandable if you did not beat the game. However, if you did beat the game then you missed the major plot twist that completely alters the game.

RandomRob
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RandomRob
6 years 4 months ago
Miyamoto says gameplay should be about things you’d like to be able to do, but maybe you can’t. Good writing is about being honest. I think the two are often at odds, or being done parallel to one another, rather than organically growing out of eachother. In any medium, genre-wise, everything has been done to death, and what separates the bad from the good is a story that takes a different path to get you there, or uses an unexpected POV. But to avoid being unmarketable, videogames tend to borrow the ideas they’re trying to be passionate about. With that… Read more »
Richard Naik
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Richard Naik
6 years 4 months ago

@Li-Ion

A game doesn’t have to have a great or even a good story, which is why it’s so often a secondary concern, but it sure helps. Going the extra mile when it comes to writing can give a game that extra little push from good to great in some cases.

Li-Ion
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Li-Ion
6 years 4 months ago
I’d say part of the problem is that video games usually focus on gameplay. Who didn’t hear the excuse “If I want to have a good story, I read a book” in defense of lackluster story in video games? Usually this comes from someone who doesn’t seem to read much in the first place. The so-called ‘story’ is usually just an excuse to kill tons of dudes. I have the feeling the story is something the game designers come up with in coffee breaks. And since they are usually not professional writers, they come up with stuff that’s familiar to… Read more »
crackajack
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crackajack
6 years 4 months ago
The average game has a story written by personnel which is, at best, great at creating the core of games but have no big talent for writing. Maybe with enough time the responsible persons could do better. I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like there is potential which isn’t utilized fully. Like after the plot was written the game will be polished around gameplay, the fun, and the story is hardly touched anymore. Bioshock Kind of boring gameplay but the story was fine until the obeying moment… then it should have ended, but it had to add another final. ok,… Read more »
Richard Naik
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Richard Naik
6 years 4 months ago

@Sean Riley

I actually didn’t stop a lot of the time with the tape decks. There were times where I would find a spot and listen, but I’d also keep moving if I knew I was in a safe area. To each their own I guess.

Sean Riley
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Sean Riley
6 years 4 months ago
@Richard The problem isn’t so much of the plausibility of the tape decks, though, but that they’re adjacent to the actual gameplay rather than a part of it. Bioshock’s best efforts at story come mostly from the “A Man chooses, A Slave obeys” plot twist, and the rescue/harvest Little Sisters moral choice. (It’s the latter, in the end, that actually sticks with me the most; upon reflection I see how it’s the one chance you have to stick it to Ryan’s/Fontaine’s worldview.) Games like Shadow of the Colossus, Ico and Far Cry 2 make their story work through their gameplay.… Read more »
A203D
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A203D
6 years 4 months ago

Yeah i actully stumbled across this from another site and i have to say it was a good read. i agree with quite a lot of points you made. and i also cant understand why magazines & game sites arnt reviewing games objectively. but definitly a great read. i definitly look forward to hearing what you have to say about other games.

Danielle
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6 years 4 months ago

Remake would seem almost more likely. Bioshock blatantly steals the majority of things from SS2. There’s even vita chambers, the same exact plot twist in the game, and the same way of telling the story with the logs. Sure, it has a different story.. but.. same exact plot twist.

So, I’m really not far off by calling in a remake.

Emery Calame
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Emery Calame
6 years 4 months ago
I don’t think telekinesis is really traceable as an influence from the gravity gun in Half Life 2. It already turned up in prior games such as Psiops, System Shock 2, Pariah, Jedi Knight, Second Sight, etc. I’m not even sure that the big pheremone is a new mechanic that originated in Half Life 2. To me Half Life 2 was sort of a broad spectrum middleware engine demo first and a coherent game (that advances a plot relevant to its franchise predecessor) second. It showed that you could do shooting in a realistic dilapidated environment, boats, kart-racing, platforming, particle… Read more »
Emery Calame
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Emery Calame
6 years 4 months ago
I don’t think telekinesis is really traceable as an influence from the gravity gun in Half Life 2. It already turned up in prior games such as Psiops, System Shock 2, Pariah, Jedi Knight, Second Sight, etc. I’m not even sure that the big pheremone is a new mechanic that originated in Half Life 2. To me Half Life 2 was sort of a broad spectrum middleware engine demo first and a coherent game (that advances a plot relevant to its franchise predecessor) second. It showed that you could do shooting in a realistic dilapidated environment, boats, kart-racing, platforming, particle… Read more »
Richard Naik
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Richard Naik
6 years 4 months ago
@Danielle I’ve heard the System Shock 2 /Bioshock comparisons, but I haven’t played SS so I can’t speak as to any of the similarities. As far as Half-Life 2/Bioshock goes, there are a lot of weapons and items (gravity gun/telekinesis, the bug goo/big daddy attractor, etc.) that I saw in HL2 that made it into Bioshock, which is where (for me) the influence shows itself. @Matthew Maybe some saw it as fan service, but what I saw was horribly misdirected attempt to tie up all the loose ends and make sense of the overall story arc. In trying to address… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 4 months ago

[quote=Danielle]Bioshock is a direct remake of System Shock 2[/quote]
I believe you meant to say that it’s a spiritual successor to SS2. “Remake” would imply that they share the same plot, which is obviously not the case.

Danielle
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6 years 4 months ago

Bioshock is not a spiritual offspring of Half-Life 2. It’s a direct remake of System Shock 2, located under the sea. So take all your praise you threw at Bioshock, and bestow it on SS2, where it actually belongs. Kthx.

AtrusHomeboy
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AtrusHomeboy
6 years 4 months ago

Major props for pointing out The Longest Journey.
WHY IS THIS GAME NOT TALKED ABOUT MORE OFTEN?!?!

Jon
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Jon
6 years 4 months ago

This article states that MGS4 is a narrative train-wreck.

That instantly discredits the author. I won’t be coming back to this site after reading such hogwash.

Matthew Kaplan
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Matthew Kaplan
6 years 4 months ago
Well, as they say, opinions are like assholes. Everyone has them, and they all smell like clowns. 🙂 With regard to your first comment, I said the *series* was broken, not the game. Second, Kojima is head cheese for these games. OF COURSE he’s going to play up every entry. He couldn’t very well admit that the first games weren’t successful stories; it would be a blow to his ego. To my knowledge, he still thinks MGS2’s plot was cohesive. That’s just delusion! We both know it. I think you might have hit the nail on the head with your… Read more »
Richard Naik
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Richard Naik
6 years 4 months ago
@Sean Riley The audio diaries in BioShock didn’t bother me, and I actually wishe there had been more of the ghost sequences. The concept of so many tapes just being left sitting around is a little awkward, but it doesn’t slow down the experience and it gets the game’s point across. If you like SoTC then I imagine you’d like Aquaria, although there’s a lot more dialogue than in SoTC. SoTC kind fell flat for me at the end too story-wise, since it wasn’t clear why the girl was alive after the demon possessed the prince and was destroyed, or… Read more »
Matthew Kaplan
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Matthew Kaplan
6 years 4 months ago
Richard, I could have accepted your criticism of MGS4’s story if you had disliked MGS1’s as well. However, by praising the story of the first game (albeit with a wink and a nod to the poor voice acting), you’ve made this critique of MGS4 almost incomprehensible. You say the game is hamstrung by MGS2’s overblown plot. That’s very true. But it’s also hamstrung by MGS1’s ridiculous set of war film cliches, thickheaded espionage, underdeveloped relationships, and laughable villain. The sheer number of loose ends MGS4 had to tie up given the roller coaster of craptastic storytelling in the series is… Read more »
RandomRob
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RandomRob
6 years 4 months ago

I agree w/Sean about Bioshock.

MGS4 I think just spent too much time in production to be coherent. Flavorless cacophony.

On more playthroughs, I got that the central theme of the game was of a detached intellectual horror. Horror that the machinery of war is so completely woven into the fabric of all technological society that humanity is being consumed by it and being spat out as monsters (immortal fighting men, insane broken cyborg women). But they completely fumble with it.

Sean Riley
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Sean Riley
6 years 4 months ago
I think there’s an element in your analysis that you’re forgetting here — how is the information given to the player? This is also a big part of storytelling, and it’s a crucial element in games, where the delivery moreso than other media is more uncertain; audience controlled. To my mind, Bioshock is a pretty poor example of good writing. Its story is told too often in clumsy fashion; use of audio diaries, ghost sequence flashbacks, etc. By contrast, I’d give Half-Life 2 much higher marks, where its storytelling does come in dialogue, true, but more often than not in… Read more »
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