I want a new way to look at the story in games, what we have now just won’t do. Games are obviously a different medium than movies, or books, and some developers fail to understand this.
So, why even have a story, or care about it? Like John Carmack said, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” After all, it’s the game that makes it
distinct. Nobody really cared about story in games until Metal Gear Solid came around (thanks, Kojima), and the quality of stories in games hasn’t gotten significantly better since then.
But games have a different side to story than most storytelling mediums: instead of just showing the player the story, a game places them into it. The player does things which are relative to the story, and, with good writing, surrounding circumstances may influence how the player makes a decision.
I’d like to call this aspect: situation. Merriam-Webster defines it as, “the way in which something is placed in relation to its surroundings.” Indeed, a player is placed in relation to surrounding story in a very specific way, regardless of what exactly that story is. Note that I am not trying to replace story, but provide another means of analyzing it, another aspect that is intimately specific to games.
Examples and Comparisons
The Elder Scrolls series has gotten extremely popular over its last two entries, for better or for worse. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is a mixed bag of upsides and downsides. Fans of the series are divided into those who like Morrowind, and those who dislike it. Incidentally, the same subsets can be found if you separate them into being born before or after 2002. Regardless, two of the games have a very polarized approach to situation. At the start of the main quest of Morrowind, the player is told to fuck off, get some experience, and learn about the world. After that, the player is sent off to find information about the prophecy of the Nerevarine. As he learns more about this prophecy, more signs point towards the player’s character being the person that fulfills it. Skyrim follows a similar setup, being about a prophesied hero with certain abilities. However, after a hop, skip, and a jump from the tutorial dungeon, the player is beating down a dragon with a single-digit level. After such an easy fight, the player is showered with praise that they’re the one everyone’s been waiting for.
The plot in these two games are pretty much the same, but the approach taken is vastly different. The player that is given more information about their situation, has a greater knowledge of that situation, which makes the story a lot more personal to them. It also gives the player a reason to care about the story. Figuring out your place in the story yourself is a lot more rewarding than being told what it is.
This isn’t those other things
This isn’t immersion. You don’t need to forget that you’re playing a game in order to have effective situation, though it helps. Usually immersive games have extremely well done situation anyways, so the two could be confused.
This isn’t cutscenes, or the lack thereof. I understand the sentiment that cutscenes force the game to stop being a game, and keep it from being the game it is. However, cutscenes are an easy way to communicate plot, and aren’t harmful to the experience as long as it’s not half an hour long and unskippable. This is another argument for another time, but situation doesn’t really depend on the use of cutscenes.
This isn’t player freedom. I love games that give the player freedom, but this can be done without situation. Sandbox games like Minecraft are notable, as well as grand strategy games and 4X. You can role-play in these games, but that’s like making up your own situation, which defeats the purpose. An example of games that include the two are Grand Theft Auto and its imitators.
This isn’t giving the player choices, but like I said about immersion, it helps. They also help each other, where a better situation will make the player care more about their choices. Poorly implemented choices, on the other hand, will most likely not be intimate with the situation.
This isn’t silent protagonist, either. While it’s a good trick to keep a player feeling like they’re inserted into the game, it can backfire in a major way. Like I said above, figuring out your place in the story yourself is a lot more rewarding than being told what it is. Games that fail to use a silent protagonist well, usually feature characters that get in your face to tell you you’re important, despite having followed a fixed path the entire time.
Finally, situation isn’t everything, it’s just another aspect of a game. A good game could have great situation, but terrible plot, and vice versa. I don’t really care if a game has good situation or not, it won’t make or break the game, but I think a lot of people overlook this aspect when discussing the story of a game.
I understand my definition in this article might not be the most exhaustive, because I’m still figuring parts of it out. In the future, I hope to write more articles about the situation in certain games, to further explain how this concept works for analysis purposes. If you readers (yes, you!) have any ideas or suggestions on what games do situation particularly well, please post a comment about it, or hit me up on the hippest social network of the second half of the 2010s.
I’m totally not writing this article to retroactively prove some of my opinions right
Also published on Medium.