Editorial: The lost art of telling a story

I have a confession to make: I have begun to tire of sandbox games, and, as such, I have never felt more alienated by the games industry. I first realised that I had reached breaking point on this issue while playing through Arkham City. I had rarely been as excited about a video game release in recent years. Arkham Asylum was, for me, a near perfect modern take on old school gaming. It was essentially linear, button bashing fare spruced up with puzzles. But it was also a master class in story-telling; I felt genuine empathy for the characters, and was desperate to see what happened to them, while the twists and turns and occasional bursts into trippy psychedelia fascinated me. I am of course aware that it is a difficult task for a sequel to have the same impact as an original game.

But the prospect of a tweaked version of Arkham Asylum, far bigger and with improved combat mechanics, was enough to make me certain that an era-defining game was on its way.Arkham City, however, while an undoubtedly extraordinary technical achievement, failed to grip me in the same way as its predecessor. While swinging from building to building was initially thrilling, that it was incessantly punctuated by ringing phones and random side missions soon became tiresome. The main story also felt far too short, and lacked the innovation, cohesiveness and challenge of its predecessor.

While the package was bulked up by the Riddler puzzles and the myriad side missions, a lengthier, more engaging storyline and fewer extras would have been infinitely preferable. The game’s pacing felt askew, at no point did it feel like the gameplay was building to an end point, a resolution.  It felt like the vast majority of the developers’ time and effort had gone towards making a faithful interactive version of the city itself, to the detriment of the immersive gameplay that had made its prequel so special.

My personal disappointment with Arkham City led to me considering my favourite games of the last decade or so. I have enjoyed a great many, but along with Arkham Asylum the two that stood out as truly special were Resident Evil 4 and Red Dead Redemption. Resident Evil 4 is, like Arkham Asylum, extremely linear, and is built around tense atmospherics, puzzles and (admittedly laughably scripted) characters.

Red Dead, while patently an open world game, makes my list primarily because of its engrossing (and indeed affecting) story. Moments such as that Jose Gonzalez track playing as you first ride into Mexico feature craftsmanship to rival the best Hollywood movie, and will live in the memory far longer than the hours spent trying to find an elusive beaver. The characters, while hackneyed, were fully fleshed and believable. I wanted to play on to find out what happened to people like Landon Ricketts, and not just because his effortless cool allowed my surname to finally be synonymous with something other than the worst footballer to ever play for England, or that old disease.

Red Dead proves emphatically that sprawling open worlds can be married to finely honed storytelling. Too often with recent sandbox games, however, developers get the balance wrong.  I was disappointed, for example, by the main story in GTA IV. Or, rather, I was disappointed by the fact that whenever the storyline became involving, and I was on my way to carry out a mission obviously central to advancing the plot, I would get a call from someone Niko doesn’t even like inviting him to go and play pool. I found it impossible to refuse these calls; my gaming brain still functions in an old school, linear way, and I was simply unable to grasp that I could ignore the phone and leave it till later. The missions themselves often felt like afterthoughts too; it is no coincidence that I enjoyed The Ballad of Gay Tony, and its strong emphasis on imaginative missions and storytelling, far more than the main game.

More recently, I am currently scaring myself half to death on a daily basis by playing Dead Space 2. I would love to tell you all about the sci fi-horror plotline twists and turns, but in truth I find each cut scene to be an opportunity to lie in the foetal position and attempt to get my heart rate down below 340bpm. In short, I have not a clue what is going on (something to do with zombie aliens?!). Yet still I find it to be endlessly fascinating, because of the mechanics and structure of the game. Because it is undeniably and unashamedly linear, the developers are able to tease you, to lull you and to scare you at will.

To me, this is still a more immersive and satisfying experience than being left largely to my own devices. I want to tackle the game’s myriad challenges in the order in which the game’s writers decided was logical, not on an arbitrary basis as and when I stumble across them. Dead Space 2 proves that it doesn’t even necessarily matter whether you fully buy into or even follow the storyline, as long as you can sense that there is one, that the composition of the game is such that there is a sense of progression.

Essentially, if I had the creative capacity to write a credible western or crime caper, I would do. As it is, I still want the game’s creators to write it for me. Too often in recent years it seems that we are given a blank canvas, and told to paint the picture ourselves. As I have got older, as well as perhaps being stuck in an outmoded mind-set, I also tend to play games – unless truly obsessed (see Fallout 3) – in shorter bursts. In theory, that makes open world games perfect for me, with the ability to dip in and out at will. But if I only have thirty minutes at a time to play a game, I want to feel like I have achieved something in those thirty minutes, not spend twenty of them traversing a city in order even to find something to do.

I am certainly not saying that I believe that sandbox games have had their day, or that I don’t like them per se. Also, it’s not purely open world games that have suffered from a dearth of great storytelling. I am no FPS aficionado (that is another blog for another day), but there seems to have been an ever continuing shift towards the campaign modes of the biggest FPS franchises amounting to little more than an afterthought; ever more shorter, repetitive and less imaginative missions tagged on under duress as even the biggest games companies would find it a tad too difficult to charge full price for a product that, at its core, is essentially an updated maps pack. But what if you don’t have a decent internet connection? What if you are not feeling particularly sociable, and don’t fancy getting shot 76 times in 8 minutes by an obnoxious 8 year old? What are you getting out of the game?

Accessible internet gaming is a wonderful development, while the sheer grunt of modern consoles has allowed developers to create game worlds of scales hitherto unimaginable. I am not arguing for  a return to  wholly linear 2D gameplay. I just think that a little bit more structure, a little more emphasis on creating a game rather than a world wouldn’t go amiss. Red Dead Redemption shows that it is possible to make technically impressive open worlds with storylines to match, creating a game that feels both highly modern and reassuringly old school. I just hope that, in the never-ending quest for technical excellence and untold amounts of ‘achievements’, games designers don’t jettison the art of telling a story.