With the triumphant debut of BioShock Infinite, storytelling in video games is once again a trending topic of discussion. It is a subject LitReactor has covered in the past—our own John Jarzemsky wrote about the various story possibilities presented by videogames not too long ago. The one unique thing the format can do that even the best novels or movies can only mimic is allow the audience to not just participate, but directly interact with the story. If videogames are ever going to be taken seriously as an art form, it is in this arena they will make their strongest arguments. Few genres represent the ideal of active story more than the “sandbox game,” which invites players to virtually step into the setting of the story, walk around, and decide its course. This presents a special challenge for the writer: how do you tell a good story when a large chunk of it is yet to be written by someone you will never meet? How much story is needed to give the gameplay meaning without taking too much control away from the player?
Let’s take a look at three games that have all seen success in the genre: Grand Theft Auto IV, Sleeping Dogs, and Saints Row: The Third. When I say success, I mean critical and commercial. While these games share similarities in both mechanics and themes, they tell their stories in very different ways, to their detriment or benefit. They are touted as “open world” experiences, implying that an endless array of possibilities awaits the player’s unstructured exploration of a vast and detailed world. All three are impressive feats of world-building. Although GTA IV’s Liberty City felt more like a real, lived in place than Saints’ Steelport, neither were as beautiful or as safe as the Hong Kong rendered in Dogs. What sets these games apart from each other is the degree to which their worlds and the stories they contain are truly open and interactive.
The one unique thing the format can do that even the best novels or movies can only mimic is allow the audience to not just participate, but directly interact with the story.
GTA IV is the latest in the royal franchise that popularized the genre, so they are the standard to both aspire to and surpass. I’ll be honest—the first few times I played GTA, I was not even remotely aware there was a storyline or missions to complete. I thought the whole point of the game was to steal a car and go on the longest rampage you could until the cops brought you down. As a result of playing this way, my friends and I never had a shortage of stories to tell about our numerous ill-fated flights from the virtual fuzz. I remember this being the first time I became acutely aware of how an interactive story worked. The game merely provided a setting (a “sandbox”) and toys to play with—the stories that resulted were my own. Even if that was all there was to GTA, it would still be one of my all time favorite games. But it turns out that while the fourth installment improved upon the core gameplay that made the series legendary, its most notable innovation was in its story. The tale of Niko Bellic, a haunted veteran of a nameless Eastern European conflict seeking the American dream, while not breathtakingly original, is an interesting one. Niko is remarkable for being utterly unlike the typical videogame protagonist. Although he is a formidable combatant, he does not revel in his martial prowess. He’s a reluctant badass. Niko doesn’t want to make his living with a gun anymore, but he doesn’t have any other choice, which is ironic in an open-world game. In fact, the more cars you steal and the more people you kill, the more poetically Niko laments his violent lot in life, wishing he and his cousin could have lived a simple life in the country. Despite being able to choose how you get there, Niko’s fate is pretty inevitable, and while that lends authenticity to the noir theme, it’s also kind of a downer when the main character is constantly making you feel guilty for enjoying the game you are playing.
Sleeping Dogs, which has frequently been described as GTA in Hong Kong, uses a more ambitious storyline. Players control Wei Shen, a police officer who is working undercover in the Triads. Missions trade off between police busts and gang activity, and many levels are fun homages to epic action set pieces from Asian cinema. Conflicting loyalties and brotherhood are major themes as Shen tries to get close the top gangster. The complexity of the story becomes problematic because it enslaves the gameplay to the plot. Everything you do is about accomplishing objectives in order to reach your target, and once it’s achieved (after about 20 hours of play) there’s really no reason to keep running around Hong Kong stealing cars and picking fights. And much like Niko’s demoralizing monologues, Shen’s position as a police officer seems to conflict with the primary purpose of the genre. The fact that Shen can wound or kill countless civilians and cops with only minor point penalties, all under the pretense of maintaining his cover, stretches believability even for a videogame. Sleeping Dogs did not give me any crazy stories to swap with my friends, because it makes less sense to orchestrate a massive shootout if you’re a cop. It’s also much more difficult, as firearms are apparently all but impossible to come by, even for a cop, in Hong Kong. Despite a wardrobe of funny-looking if useless outfits, Sleeping Dogs ultimately isn’t a game about telling your own story. It’s Shen’s story, and you get to play through the action scenes, but never really make any choices.
At the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Saints Row: The Third, a game that is all about choices. The player creates their own protagonist from scratch, even selecting a voice and personality. The character’s backstory is invitingly vacant, waiting to be filled by the player. After a basic tutorial introduction, the game literally drops you in in the middle of Steelport, a city described as “Bangkok’s abusive father,” and leaves you to fend for yourself. There is only the barest premise of a plot: build the biggest and baddest gang you can and take over the city. How you go about accomplishing that and what kind of gang you do it with is entirely up to you. Maybe you take over block by block with a posse of shotgun-toting playboy bunnies, or maybe you declare all-out war on a rival gang, backed up by your crew of ninjas armed with AK-47s. You can actually conquer the entire city and play every wacky activity without ever completing a mission. Although you should, because every level plays out like a bizarre satire of some other franchise or staple of videogame history. If we had to continue the GTA metaphor, this one would be set in Toontown, a place where the laws of physics only apply to explosions. Despite having the least amount of plot and character development, it provides the coolest sandbox with the most fun toys, which will keep players coming back to make new stories long after they were supposed to be doing something else that was probably really important.
Videogames have already proven they can go to emotional depths to tell complex stories, but this accomplishment was earned in an attempt to prove they could do the same things other formats were already exalted for. Excelling at interactive stories, the kind that only games can tell, is where the format will truly distinguish itself in the annals of art. None of these games were perfect, but they all did various things very right, so programmers could learn a thing or two from their examples.