Plot is overrated? The real problem with stories in video games


Last week, Riot Games narrative lead Tom Abernathy and Microsoft Game Studios design lead Richard Rouse III gave a talk called “Death to the Three-Act Structure” at GDC that has caused quite a stir in the gaming community. Although their actual point is much more complex than the talking point it has been boiled down to—’plot is overrated’—some of the data they cite in service of it is quite interesting.

“Death to the Three-Act Structure”

First, let’s take a look at what Rouse and Abernathy actually said. At the core of their argument is a Microsoft user research study which had the following findings (I’m taking these directly from Rouse and Abernathy’s slides for the GDC talk):

  • Players had difficulty tracing game plots from beginning to end (in contrast to other
    media), often forming only episodic memories for game narrative.
  • Game characters were consistently remembered, though not necessarily for
    their role in the plot. Instead, characterization appeared memorable.
  • Player recall for gameplay dominated narrative, even for players who self-reported
    playing games mostly for the story, but narrative provided context for gameplay, even
    for players who self-reported ignoring story.
  • Participants were perfectly capable of rich thinking about narrative.

Abernathy and Rouse also cited some data, pulled from Steam and Bioware, on how many players actually completed story-focused single-player games like Mass Effect 2 (56%), Bioshock Infinite (53%), Batman Arkham City (47%), and Portal (47%). Yikes!

Their conclusions, to summarize greatly, were that the traditional three-act structure for film, television, and many novels isn’t particularly suitable for games, and that developers should focus more on characters. I think they’re half-right (I disagree with the character bit, but Gamasutra’s David Kuelz has already handled that pretty well).

But instead of focusing on their argument, I want to argue that those statistics they’ve cited point in a wholly different direction. The problem isn’t that plots in games are overrated. It’s that they’re crippled by a number of other industry failings.

You call this a story?


Microsoft’s research study found that gamers had an easier time retelling the plot of television and movies than they did the plots of games. There’s not much detail about the specific games or other media used in Rouse and Abernathy’s deck, but I suspect most gamers could confirm this personally. I’d certainly have an easier time trying to describe the story of Breaking Bad than I would the story of Call of Duty: Ghosts, even though I played that game more recently than I’ve watched the show.

The reason for this isn’t some inherent problem with plot in a video game, though. It’s that the stories most video games tell are—let’s face it—terrible. The writing is generally horrible, the characters are usually walking cliches, and the plotlines are either overly-simplistic snore-fests or so twisted and complicated that they’re impossible to follow. The reason gamers in Microsoft’s study were worse at recalling game plots might well be because overall, the game plots were simply less interesting.

This is, in part, a problem with the industry. Look at the credits the next time you finish a game. The team devoted to writing the story is generally small, if there even is one at all. There are gigantic departments for things like visual effects, but the story often falls into the hands of just a few people, often people who also have other design duties on the game as well.

And while I don’t want to name any names, if you look up these people on LinkedIn, you’ll find that some of them have no real background in writing or storytelling. Game developers hire the best coders to program their games, and the best artists to design them. But the story is often written wholly or in part by those same coders and artists, rather than people with extensive experience in writing and storytelling.

It’s also worth pointing out that in Hollywood and in television, one way things get made is that full-time screenwriters write stories as spec scripts, and then directors and producers choose and adapt the ones they like. In the games industry, there is no real equivalent, and virtually no outside input at all. If I were to write a fantastic game story and send it to Ubisoft, they would not make it into a game. There’s no mechanism for that sort of thing. Story is almost always generated and handled internally.

And as a result, a lot of video game stories are terrible.

Gameplay gets in the way


Of course, that doesn’t explain why gamers often fail to finish the stories in games that do have a compelling plot. Certainly, one could not accuse Portal of being pooly-written, so why is it that only 47% of players finished it?

There are a number of reasons, and my colleague Iain has already written about some of them. But personally, I think this has less to do with plot as a driving force and more to do with gameplay as an obstructing force. In other words: the problem is not that gamers aren’t compelled to keep playing by the plot, it’s that they are compelled to stop playing by the gameplay.

This can happen for lots of reasons. In the case of Portal, my guess is that frustration about not being able to solve a level led to many people quitting. Puzzle games can make you feel pretty stupid when you can’t figure out how to advance, and the most interesting plot in the world isn’t going to be able to force gamers to stick with a game if it’s making them feel stupid as they play the same level over and over again without progressing.

Imagine, for example, if viewers had to complete puzzles while watching Game of Thrones, and every time you failed to complete one fast enough, the show simply replayed the most recent scene over and over until you completed the puzzle. How many people do you think would have made it to the end of season one?

It’s also possible to simply distract gamers from the plot with gameplay overload. I’m one of the 53% of gamers who never completed Batman Arkham City and I can tell you exactly why: there was simply too much to do. Arkham Asylum had a more narrow focus and fewer side-quests, and as a result it was pretty easy to follow. I beat it several times. But Arkham City, for all the strengths of its plot, simply had too much else going on. I kept getting pulled away from the narrative thread of the story by side quests and other distractions.

In fact, gameplay obstructing plot is a pretty common problem with games. The world is in danger, and only you can save it, but first I need you to help me collect 12 wolf pelts: how often have you heard some form of that before? There are plenty of games that have a decent narrative but refuse to let players experience it by constantly funneling them into story-irrelevant side missions for gameplay purposes.

Technical limitations


Another issue is that until very recently, graphics technology made it difficult to do a lot of the subtle things that are possible in film and television. It’s a lot easier to get emotionally attached to the realistic-looking Ellie in The Last of Us than it is to a pixellated Princess Peach. That’s not to say that every story has to be photo-realistic to be compelling (Pixar would take issue with that idea, I’m sure), but when it comes to creating a narrative with real emotional depth, there’s no doubt that being able to produce realistic facial expressions helps. And that’s technology developers have really only just begun to master.

There are also some game genres where plot is just difficult to effectively implement because of the genre’s conventions or requirements. I’ve written before about why I don’t like MMORPGs, and while I won’t repeat myself here, that article goes into depth about the problems the MMORPG genre poses with regard to story immersion.

Wherefore plot?


Of course, the business answer to everything I’ve just written would be: who cares? If 50% of your players aren’t finishing the story, then it’s a waste of money and time to have huge teams dedicated to creating single-player story-driven content. It’s hard to argue with that.

I do think, though, that if the games industry could rectify some of the problems with plot in games, those numbers would go up. Way up. And I think we’re likely to see a gamer backlash against the increasingly plotless games coming out today simply because without that context, even the most fun multiplayer game often feels sort of pointless.

So what can developers do to improve their plots and keep gamers playing longer?

  • Hire professional writers (and voice actors) who can tell your story well. Treat the story as if it were just as important as the game’s code.
  • Include easy difficulty settings and ways for gamers who just want to experience the story to bypass things like bosses and puzzles. Some people play games for a challenge, and others just want to experience a story in an interactive way. Serve both.
  • Cut ruthlessly. Do not overstuff your game with sidequests and collectible nonsense, try to pad it for time, or stick in a dozen confusingly-interwoven side stories. Brevity is the soul of wit but it’s also the soul of competent game story design: if you give players too many other things to do, they can get distracted, confused, or overwhelmed and subsequently be pulled out of your narrative.

Of course, there are other approaches, and this is not to say that every game should include a single-player story. But in general, I don’t think plot in games is overrated so much as it is undercooked. If developers put more time and effort into creating great stories for their games, gamers would spend more time playing and talking about them, too.


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