Critical Hit: The Art of Storytelling

Written by Jon Wilcox

March 28, 2011 | 07:33

Tags: #column #critical-hit #heavy-rain #limbo #story

Companies: #bafta #bit-gamer #quantic-dream

Critical Hit: The Tools of the Trade

I was very happy to see Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, which I finally managed to get around to playing just a few weeks ago (a long time after first seeing the demo at the Leipzig Game Convention in 2008), winning so many BAFTAs recently. The way that Heavy Rain deviates from so many established videogame traditions entitles it to more than just the awards for Best Story, Innovation and Original Music, in my eyes. I’d argue that it should even have beaten Mass Effect 2 in the Best Game category too, in fact, although that’s a debate for another time.

Actually, the recent awards have once again left me thinking about storytelling in videogames. Heavy Rain's isn't a perfect game to play - its control system can flip from being immersive to frustrating in an instant - and yet even these shaky controls play a part in the fantastic story. Sure, the actual storyline would still be strong if David Cage and his team implemented a more generic third-person control system. However, by developing a system of button presses and stick movements that more readily reflects the character’s actions and movements, the unfolding events are enhanced; the story is made more engrossing.

Of course there will be some saying a control system can’t possibly enhance the storytelling experience, but I’d argue its atmospheric tale is enriched through its unorthodox design, sucking players into the world of the Origami Killer even further.

Critical Hit: The Tools of the Trade
Heavy Rain uses controls to help tell the story

Cutscenes, whether pre-rendered or not, have long been the primary means for telling stories in videogames. At the very least, they've given developers the ability to add a level of cinematic flair to a game, with carefully composed camera angles, dialogue and lighting, all working together to bring context and exposition to a player’s actions. When they work well, they're great, although most of the time they struggle to approach mediocrity.

In recent years, quick time events (QTEs) have started to appear as ‘cutscene+’ moments. At first they seemed to promise extra interaction and involvement for the player, but they’ve largely failed to enhance the storytelling any more than regular cutscenes. There’s even an argument to say that they actually do the reverse. One rare example that breaks the mould is Bioware’s conversation system used in the Mass Effect games, which can in many ways be viewed as a set of multiple choice QTEs.

Both cutscenes and QTEs are tried, tested and clichéd techniques used across the industry, but there are other ways to express a storyline in a videogame. Over 90 years ago silent movies delivered narratives without a single word being spoken, and barely a few lines of dialogue displayed on the screen. The directors had to be intelligent and inventive in their execution of storytelling, relying instead on events, atmosphere and body language – something that is rarely used to proper effect in most games.

Critical Hit: The Tools of the Trade
Limbo suggests a complex story solely through the pervading atmosphere

Atmosphere is especially important too. Take a game such as Limbo, which tells the haunting and emotive story of a boy’s hunt for his missing sister to life without a single cutscene or spoken word. A consistent atmosphere that’s worked well into the core of the game can be used to communicate much of the games narrative to players without them even realising.

So, if Heavy Rain is the pinnacle of storytelling in videogames at the moment, the obvious question is; where will we go from here?

As the industry has evolved, so too have the techniques employed by the studios. Text, cutscenes, QTEs, context-sensitive control schemes and raw atmosphere, have all been used to tell stories, but what tools will we turn to next? As the next generation of consoles begins to emerge, first with the Nintendo 3DS and later this year with the Sony NGP, we can only wait with baited breath for some of the new forms of storytelling the creative geniuses in the industry are coming up with.

Critical Hit is a twice-monthly column exploring the state of the games industry.
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