One of the criteria most gamers look at is the playtime for games. If a game has only got 10 hours of gameplay, well, it doesn’t seem like it`s worth the $60+ price tag. If a game has 40+ hours of gameplay, then it’s a little more palatable to buy at full price. It was this exact reason why I got into RPGs as a kid. They had a ton of content and usually pretty full and elaborate stories. But let’s be real, games like to stuff their playtime more than some women like to stuff their bras. In RPGs, the endless grinding is hella repetitive, but nonetheless, there is a necessity for the player to do so. You’re under-levelled for the next boss? Have some baddies to beat up to level your characters. All things considered, it’s not a terrible model.
In more recent times, games have introduced multiplayer elements to inflate playtimes. Again, not a terrible idea. Take Call of Duty, love it or hate it, they’ve found a way to captivate people. They give a halfway passable campaign that runs 8-10 hours, and then deliver a stellar-built multiplayer which can bump up the average playtime from 8-10 hours to 2-3 months. I’ve actually seen this. Why is this so immensely popular?
Well, it does cut down production time. It’s like making cookies from a package versus from scratch. Once the core game is built, then you just have to add milk and egg, or new level design and players, and you’ve got something most people will enjoy. All the experience that developers painstakingly add to storylines, like the final warthog run in Combat Evolved, can be replaced by adding a ton of unique elements into a defined border. That unique element is players in a multiplayer environment. The experience is supplemented by the wide breadth of possibilities each player adds to the game. Most gamers have at least one story of something awesome he or she did by themselves or with a team that they feel is unique. And it is. Whether another gamer has had a similar experience is irrelevant. It’s not like a single player moment, everyone knows how awesome that warthog run is, but in that multiplayer experience, you had to be there to know the awesomeness. As a result, people have gone the route of foregoing focus on the single player campaign and gone straight to the multiplayer.
The experiences gained in the single player campaign is negligible compared to the vast amount of experiences possible in multiplayer. Developers know that it isn’t worth the effort of producing a 10 hour experience when a plausible months-long experience is locked behind a good multiplayer mode. But this also delves into another issue. Since games are an interactive medium, the flow of the gameplay has to be intrinsically attached to the story. Sounds simple, but that’s a huge development hurdle.
If anyone has ever played D and D where a DM has a plan for the campaign to go a certain way, you’ve seen how hard it can be to contain players. A player is a unique and unpredictable variable. In D and D, a DM will probably spend hours plotting a unique adventure only for his or her party to throw buckets of oil and light it all on fire. That actually happened the last time I played D and D…we accidently burnt a puppy orphanage down…I saved as many as I could though, I swear…
Since the developer (the DM) is right there, he or she can make corrections on the flow, but game developers don’t have that luxury. They have to build in fail-safes, like walking exposition. Have you ever played a game where you’re character automatically walks slower to listen to an NPC? Or even worse, when a NPC makes you have to slow down your progress just to follow their slow ass? Yeah, that right there is a failsafe for game developers. How are we going to make sure the player understands what to do next and what’s happening to the character? Blatantly tell them in a portion of the game where they’re focus should be solely on the exposition.
Oh, you just finished a firefight? Why don’t you take a break from interacting with this interactive medium to hear precisely why the enemy was here in the first place?
Bah. Fucking Bah.
I get why developers do this, I really do, but to me, that’s bad storytelling. In the context of a book, it’s the moment where the character comes out of an inescapable position, but then another character has to explain why the protagonist did what was thought to be impossible. It breaks the suspension of disbelief by destroying the pace and structure of the story. Don’t get me wrong, exposition is a part of storytelling, but it should be hidden and well disguised, not glowing like the Las Vegas strip. There’s an old adage in writing that states ‘show don’t tell’. It’s an abstract concept, and no writer absolutely nails that principle; but essentially, what its saying is that something should be revealed, like you were solving a difficult math problem, rather than blatantly being told, like if someone was solving the math problem for you and not showing the steps of how he or she got there.
I’ve always figured games have this because most stories in games are not written by writers. Instead, they’re written by the guy on the development team who took that one creative writing course in university six
years ago. Essentially, it’s writing from a programmer’s mind, which means that exposition that should be masked is glaring. If it was the other way around, a writer trying to program a game, they’re would most likely be design errors and limits that should have been coded out but most likely stayed in because the writer didn’t know how to edit it out or make it any other way.
I don’t fault them for doing this; writers are unfortunately an expendable asset in most cases. If you’re literate, you can be a writer, so why take the more expensive specialist when a cheaper option is right there. Specialists exist for a reason though. Sure anyone can do anything these days but writers are, or should be, trained to tell stories better than the average person. Game budgets are so high these days, the companies should throw a few extra grand some writer’s way in order to avoid bad story telling. Don’t mind me. I’ll just be waiting for my phone call from 343 to start writing the next Halo game…any day now…
I hate critique without construction though, so I have to add my two cents in how to fix this issue. I think there’s way more than one way to skin this cat, but one way developers could go is to add a layer of interaction. Not just quick time events, those have already been bastardized to all hell, though great in concept. Instead, imagine you were just in a firefight and the game wanted to explain why the enemy landed here. Instead of slowing the player down and cutting all their actions except for the analog sticks, the player could be told to go check for wounded while the exposition is happening. Essentially make it into a minigame. Kneel beside a soldier, press ‘A’ to roll him over, press ‘X’ to inspect. Oh what, he’s alive?! Here’s a button combination you have to do to stop the bleeding until the field medic shows up. Nothing too crazy. You can’t distract the player too much. But you can actually integrate this into how the story is told.
Let’s say in that firefight there’s 10 soldiers who fought in your immediate area. You come out relatively unscathed, initiating the next bit of story. As you check soldiers, a developed RNG decides which ones live, let’s say it’s only 5 out the 10. So when the exposition is over, so is that ‘minigame’; the player can only save so many lives. The player may have been able to check on just the living ones, and therefore, saving them if the player entered the right button combo, but most likely, because they didn’t have time, NPCs died. Then later in the game, the NPCs the player did save interact with the player again. Some are thankful, some are angry that the player didn’t do more for others, some may even be nonplussed. As a result, a player will feel the weight of their actions more, plus the story bits have been told within a reasonable manner. It also captures a bit of that unique variable that’s made multiplayer so popular.
That’s just one example in a sea of possibilities, so take that with a grain of salt; but I think the reasoning is sound. What’s the reasoning? Well, devs…hire writers. Single player campaigns are not a dead medium by any stretch, so why not put the time and effort into making it the best it can be?