PSLS.net Home

Daily Reaction: Chasing Graphics – The Sacrifice of Storytelling

March 12, 2013 Written by Sebastian Moss

As per a reader email suggestion (thanks Tion), today’s Daily Reaction will be formatted slightly different, with Seb and Dan answering a trio of questions on the topic of graphics, storytelling and God of War.

As games have been getting by despite having very limited visuals in the past, do you think we are relying too much on visual forms to tell stories these days?

SebStation: In short, yes. Visuals are an important part of certain stories – with some games you need the characters to be able to portray emotions for the gameplay to work (think reading people in L.A. Noire), but in other games it’s just a nice addition. All the old Zelda games had terrible graphics, but they were still memorable stories (albeit cliched ones). I don’t think it’s ever been that good, sadly, with games rarely focusing on a good story. The problem is that writing always takes a back seat, just like how it does in most high-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Costs are going up, and risks are increasing, so they stay generic and stay dull.

Pretty lights and snazzy effects are what makes a good trailer, and are what developers and publishers know how to create. So they focus on that, forgetting the meat behind the spice, so all we are left with is something that sparkles, but doesn’t shine.

Dan-ger Zone: Agreed, while stories are not always going to take a hit from the focus on improved visuals, it is too easy to get wrapped up in the technology pushing graphics, and fail to give the story its much deserved attention. As with L.A. Noire, which Seb brought up, the game had an interesting method to show how advancements in technology could improve a story, but the basic story that the game was built upon was so flat it became a chore to even get through it. This concept that developers will spend so much time focusing on a specific feature to push, while forgetting the fundamentals that must actually drive the title to be enjoyable, is something that is becoming a bigger problem as expand the ability to interact with our growing medium.

Games are being produced to have a shelf life of a fraction of what they used to be, and, it is sad to say, the technology that we are so focused on these days is a major factor in that. In the past, the visuals were so simplistic that character roles were literary based, as the text drove the personality, now that is being taken over by animation departments, and games are no longer requiring as many non-visual representations of a character’s personality as before. So, while we may be getting more out of games with advancements in tech, we are starting to see sacrifices in the fundamentals that made many of us fall in love with gaming in the first place.

Hollywood is improving, to some extent – do you see the AAA games industry improving at storytelling?

Sebsational: That’s the dream, right? And yeah, I do see it happening with a few games, just like with BioShock and Heavy Rain. What we need is those strong, single characters that can lead a creative vision.  Look at Assassin’s Creed – great initial idea, but there are so many cooks stirring that particular stew, that it’s now a clusterfuck. Tons of game directors, series directors, IP directors, a team of writers per game, a crap ton of games all developed in unison. The result is less than pretty.

But, when you look at BioShock, which is mainly lead by Ken Levine (writer, creative director and studio co-founder) and Heavy Rain, which is led by David Cage (writer, game director, studio CEO and founder). We need more leaders like this, willing to take control of the entire game and series.

Luckily, both those games were big successes simply due to their stories, which will encourage publishers to fund similar games. Unfortunately, mass churned products like AC and CoD are still safer and more profitable ventures, so they will remain the majority game type. Unless people Kickstarter a Daily Reaction game, of course.

Dang: While I really do not agree that the movie industry has gotten better at telling stories, I feel Hollywood has learned that they cannot tell stories as well as other mediums, so they are now borrowing content. As we see more movies based on novels and comics, Hollywood has been able to drive movies with better stories than we have seen over the last few years, but it has not been simply a matter of the movie industry improving, just learning that they just suck at what they do (most but not all).

The games industry is a more difficult beast, as more and more time and energy must be spent simply generating the assets to build a game, the attention to drive a story will become a shrinking asset for many studios. Luckily, we do have developers like David Cage who really understands that a story is not simply a Michael Bay movie with explosions with filler on the ends, but that story is driven by the characters. Technology is now improving our ability to visually relate to a character emotionally, as we have seen with the demo-reel of Kara, and we are reaching a point where a picture can be worth a thousand words – but, whether or not this can become a standard for more developers needs to be seen, as our industry is still young and having to relearn the ropes with each new generation.

Sony has decided to change the ‘offensive‘ ‘Bros before Hos’ trophy in GOW: A, what message does this send to developers and game writers?

Sebbot: Essentially, play it safe. Don’t push boundaries, don’t say anything that might upset anyone, because they might cry to mommy. Fuck free speech, screw humor or sticking to your creative beliefs. It doesn’t matter if you write for a game series riddled with violence, dark humor or rude jokes, someone out there has their own mental moral line that they have created and believe is universal, so if you cross it, you’ve clearly crossed the line.

It’s very hard for developers to do anything that might upset anyone (except tons of mindless killing, we’re ok with that). Again, I’m brought back to BioShock and Heavy Rain, as games that are leading the charge. David Cage had huge trouble publishing HR, as all the publishers he pitched it to wanted him to remove the possibility of the kid dying… which undermines the whole point of the game. Meanwhile, BioShock: Infinite is getting in hot water over religious themes, but luckily, the huge sales of the first game means that Take-Two isn’t forcing changes (at least that we know of).

Most games will continue to play it safe, with the only boundary being pushed being the amount of blood they can render at any given time… perpetuating the view of games as just a violent medium, rather than also being able to produce stories that matter.

Dangle: To answer this I feel I need to bring up another question: Can games be art? Yes, I feel they can be, as art is simply an expression of one’s thoughts to make someone else feel something. Yet, as gaming studios see that is its ok to back down from their own beliefs or direction on games, no, games cannot become art. The lack of conviction from Sony to stand by what they have created makes me sick and disheartened, as I would never want to waste my time on a product has nothing to say for itself. Even if something so mundane as a trophy name can be changed because of the (limited) public outcry of idiotic people who have zero comprehension of reality, then why haven’t we started to change all aspects of gaming to suit everyone’s needs.

Developers really need to see that once a product hits the shelves, that is what you are having to stand by, and the ability to patch your product down the line is a slippery slope. If Sony did not intend to have something like that become an accessible feature of the game, fine. But, if you are making something tasteless for the sake of pushing boundaries, you need to stand by your product, and not ask for forgiveness.

Before I was really looking forward to picking up GOW: Ascension, now because it is obviously little more than a game designed to facilitate sales over its own ability to stand on its own two feet, I will have to pass. Sorry Sony, you fucked up twice. I just hope developers don’t see this as a reason to not push the medium forward, as they become scared every time some troll opens their mouth.

What did you think of the new format, and would you like to see it again? Or is Tion an idiot, or a genius? Are we too harsh on stories in games, or does it not matter as long as it’s purrty? Share your thoughts in the comments below, stare at our beautiful avatars on Twitter at Seb and Dan and send your game scripts to DailyReaction@PlayStationLifeStyle.net.