[HDR Knowledge is a bi-weekly column written by Nayan Ramachandran and chronicles his hopes and wishes for the future of the industry. This week, we take a look at the past, present and future of storytelling in gaming, and how it should change in the future.]

As we progress through generation after generation of gaming history, we see a more prominent role for stories in our games. No question, some games require no story, especially those of an online nature. That does not mean that stories have no place in the genre. It’s actually quite the opposite. The more realised a game world becomes through technology and interaction, the more grounding and context a player needs.

HDRKoct1601.jpg The misnomer about story, of course, is that it must be told at the player, rather than with the player. Because of technological issues (as well as limited experience with a narrative medium), cut scenes became famous in the Super Famicom and Playstation 1 eras, because of their effective nature in telling a story.

Times have changed with technology, and we have more and more original ways of telling a story. The overt cutscene method has been thrown away by many developers in favor of more immersive (and sometimes completely optional) methods. Instead of the obstrusive and invasive cutscenes, games either feature story that presents itself while the player is running about the world, such as in Valve’s Half-Life series.

The other, more prevalent story convention is the diary. While some games, such as Biohazard (Resident Evil in North America) combine the use of cutscenes and optional written diaries in their games, other game development teams took a different route: optional storytelling.

Every gamer no doubt is, or knows, a gamer that often shouts “I just want to start playing!” when a long protracted introduction begins. It’s a difficult balance as well; if the game provides too much story and slows down the action, it’s likely to lose the player’s attention. If the game provides too little story, sometimes the context of the player’s actions is so ambiguous and nonsensical that the player can either become increasingly frustrated, or lose their motivation to continue with the game.

HDRKoct1602.jpg The method by which story is delivered is always in contention. Retro Studios’ Metroid Prime offered an elegant solution: players are offered a very simple and basic plot at the beginning of the game, and ample motivation to move forward and finish the game. For some, that amount of story is enough, and they play the game through in entirety without a second thought. The game’s world goes far deeper, though. Those willing to look for it can scan video monitors and other machines to receive written diary entries and experiment reports that act like patchwork pieces in a giant narrative tapestry.

Even Halo 3 offered Terminals that allowed players to delve a little more into the story’s history as an optional pilgrimage. The writing in the game’s main story was largely generic and boring, yet the secret terminal text was some of Bungie’s best writing since the original Marathon series. Why hide such painstakingly written and fantastically executed dialogue in such a devious fashion?

As a professional writer, one of the most important things to consider is audience. The game’s story has the same audience as the game itself, and as such has to adhere to certain conventions of that archetype. Halo’s audience is largely concerned with gameplay (specifically multiplayer). Players have come to expect a more action oriented game, not marred by constant narrative and science fiction diatribe. As such, while Bungie truly wanted to include long sections of well written diaries for the player to read, the vast majority of players probably probably had no desire to read any of it. That is the real shame.

Where do we draw the line on story, though? No one will get any disagreement from me concerning the statement “not all games require story.” One of my current favorite puzzle games, Yosumin, is completely devoid of story, context, and even a world. The game is just a box of colored shapes with kooky faces, and the story stops there. That does not mean that we should merely stop there with advances in inventive gaming narrative. 2K Boston’s Bioshock was a huge success because of the way it handled narrative. Most of the story was told through audio narratives that played in the corner of the screen while still letting the player explore and battle. It gave players a chance to experience the story while still enjoying a gunfight. It also offered an almost entirely real-time narrative, akin to Half-Life, only straying away from the formula in one particular instance.

HDRKoct1603.jpg While both Bioshock and Half-life offered an “amusement park ride” style narrative, driving the player through scenes with talking heads explaining the story thus far, neither game exhibited a terribly deep story. Both games had their fair share of twists, but both lacked symbolism and dramatic metaphors. Neither game needed either, but it is evidence that this style of narrative does not always work in all cases.

Japanese games almost exclusively use cutscenes; pieces of pre-rendered or real-time video that further the story through traditional film style. There is no question that cutscenes are far more disruptive to the immersive experience than the “amusement park ride,” but it gives storytellers a chance to inject drama into the story, direct the player’s eye to specific places, and largely suggest the feelings the player should be experiencing at that moment in time.

Especially in particularly harrowing or high tension situations, I actually quite like the idea of a cutscene. I see them as a reward for defeating a difficult boss or completing a specific task, and if spaced well enough, they give me a much needed chance to sit back, set the controller down, and let out a sigh of relief. The problem that lies in the use of cutscenes is that frequency. Recent Final Fantasy games are specifically at fault, especially in the early hours of the game. While later parts of the game are usually full of side quests, battles and exploration, the first ten or so hours are chockful of cutscenes, sometimes only giving 20-30 minutes of gameplay in between. This has forced many to dislike the use of cutscenes, even in games where their use is required.

The other prevalent issue with cutscenes is the inability to skip them. In games where save points and bosses can be on either side of a lengthy cutscene, it can be aggravating to have to watch the cutscene again and again after being defeated by the boss multiple times. Many games offer the ability to skip cutscenes, but some still don’t, for whatever reason.

The answer to providing a good story in a game is not as easy as I make it sound, but many have done it before, and it can be done again, and better:

1) Don’t treat the player like an idiot. If you want to include metaphor and symbolism in the story, don’t club the player over the head with its meaning, otherwise you have ruined what makes the symbolism so strong. Let it speak for itself.

2) Unclog the start of the game. Stop putting tons of cutscenes at the beginning of the game. It’s important to set the scene for the game, but try to figure out a more interactive means of doing so. Like a good book, a game’s first 15 minutes should be spent exhibiting the pacing and atmosphere that the player expects to experience for the entirety of the game.

3) Open-ended endings are fun. Try not to explain absolutely everything at the end of the game, but also don’t leave all questions completely unanswered. Leave players with the tools and clues they need to piece the mystery together, but leave enough ambiguity that will keep them guessing for years, or at least until the sequel.

4) Give us more unreliable narrators. Nothing builds mystery like experiencing a world as a character the player does not entirely trust. Not only does this allow the player to piece together the character’s true past without the use of the cliched amnesia mechanic, but it also allows players to question everything around them, and the actions of their character. Nothing is more frightening than not being able to trust yourself.

5) Provide layers of plot. Metroid Prime, Bioshock, and Halo 3 were on to something. Particularly in action-based games, provide a skeleton frame of a story for the average player who only cares about shooting people in the crotch. Along with that, provide deeper and better written story through diaries and audio that players can optionally track down during their adventure. Additional points if the player can read or listen while they explore and fight.

[Nayan Ramachandran is a dashing raconteur by day. By night, he writes his weekly blog, HDRL.]