You should never interrupt a gamer. I’m not talking to parents trying to serve dinner, spouses trying to clean, or internet cafes trying to close up for the night. I’m talking to game designers. And yet, over and over, that’s precisely what they do as they try to tell their stories. Books are written to be read, movies are filmed to be watched, and games are made to be played. So why do game designers continue to insist on making us watch and read our games, inserting videos, audio logs and readable notes and emails, instead?
In the world of gaming, storytelling is still pretty primitive. That’s not to say a video game story has never made me feel anything. I’ll cry at the drop of a hat. But when compared to other media, we’re still in the stone ages in many ways. These limitations not only affect our moment to moment enjoyment of these individual games, but hold back the medium as a whole. As we start to delve into virtual reality, the way we tell stories will have to be reconsidered.
All of this came to a head this spring as I played Quantum Break, the newest game from Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment. The story is the kind of pulp science fiction I love, with time travel complications layering one over another. Solid action and amazing visual effects make it a joy to play and a treat for the eyes. But at every turn, the game seems to want to stop me from playing it.
There are TV show-like episodes between levels, but that’s not even the worst of it. It’s the legion of computers littering the offices of the evil Monarch corporation, not one of them protected with a password. Not only are they left open and unprotected, the employees seem to always have highly confidential (and always plot-relevant) emails left up on their screens. Even low-risk tech companies have rules about locking their computers, to say nothing of a corporation literally preparing for the end of time.
We’ve seen this a million times in video games: BioShock has audio logs, Fallout has hackable computers, Skyrim and Witcher 3 have piles and piles of books. They’re trying to create what I like to call a mood mural—a background image made of small details that are meant to help paint a picture of the world. Writers spend countless hours fleshing out these game worlds with all kinds of concepts and ideas, and instead of dumping that work into an artbook or a codex menu that most players will never go through, many developers spread them throughout the game in hopes of adding context and detail to the world they’re asking us to inhabit.
Instead of painting a picture of the world, though, they keep asking us to stop and look away from that world. They break the illusion continually, reminding us that we’re in a game. Instead of adding context, they feel like filler. They’re lazy storytelling meant to make explicit what the game world is already implying.
This is especially the case in games like Fallout and BioShock. These games are filled with one-room stories, vignettes meant to suggest something about the world. Instead, they always come with some kind of diary or audio log that straight up tells us what happened, leaving no room for interpretation. It makes the world feel like a haunted house in an amusement park or an interactive museum exhibit—not a real place, but something that was waiting for the player to show up so that all the robots could start moving.
Whatever these notes and logs say, what they’re really telling us is, “we don’t think you can figure this out on your own, so we’re going to tell you.” As gaming is trying grow, these inelegant solutions hold games back. And virtual reality will, if it becomes as popular as many think, bring this problem into sharp relief.
Once those goggles slide into place, the number one priority for the developer becomes immersion—an uninterrupted game experience. Even game menus move and shift differently than they had in the past, changing to suit the motion-controlled input of VR. If we’re to have extended experiences that more closely mirror traditional games, these constant interruptions are one sure way to break that immersion.
That’s not to say that every game has this problem. One developer with a track record of handling this stuff elegantly is Rockstar. Games like Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption take place in wide open worlds that are made to be traversed. Instead of assuming you know nothing about the world, Rockstar assumes you’re familiar and fills in the blanks while you move. Instead of having to read a detailed mission screen, you often get to listen to characters converse as you travel. The very thing that serves as the basis for the game—the wide open world—is being used to deliver the story.
A less elegant but still more player-friendly solution is the previously mentioned codex. The first place I remember seeing such a thing was in Frank Herbert’s Dune, a science fiction novel that came out of extensive research. The end of the book was filled with appendices that let the superfan dig deeper without interrupting the more casual reader.
BioWare’s science fiction RPG Mass Effect does much the same thing. As you explore the many worlds the games offer, meeting new races and characters, the codex fills in with tertiary information. If you like, you can get lost in these and read for hours, but you don’t have to.
The upcoming Tacoma and its predecessor Gone Home take the opposite approach, making these items front and center and tying them directly into the narrative. The difference is they’re not there to flesh out the world, they are the world. Tacoma’s biometric recordings don’t simply deliver audio or video, but an interactive playback of a previous event, letting you wander through it to examine body language, to look at what the characters in these vignettes might have been looking at.
Remedy themselves, the very studio I’m harping on, even did a better job of this with Alan Wake. The 2010 action game told the story of a writer trying to piece together a missing week of time. The manuscript pages littered around the world filled in the blanks from his point of view and experimented with the story, like in one instance that let the writers poke fun at themselves:
The Dark Souls series builds its lore into the items you’re constantly collecting. Each piece of text is about the length of a tweet, and you can read it instantly. It’s there if you want it, it’s attached to something you’d be picking up anyway, and it’s not an interruption. When the game does ask for your attention, it seems like an important moment.
These games aren’t bad and many of them are going to be timeless classics we look back on years from now as important. But this reminds us how much further video games have to go.
The first movies told simple stories like “a train is coming right at you” or “a guy sneezed.” When they wanted to tell more complicated stories, they began to insert story cards to make up for the lack of sound. That’s where games are. And it’s time for them to move forward.
Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, and it’s been downhill ever since. He takes a multifaceted approach to gaming news and reviews, mixing business analysis, cultural studies, tech and design. In his free time, he perfects his napping technique and pursues the elusive perfect cheeseburger.