With each generation of video game consoles we see new ideas and implementations. Customizable controls and save points are two rather recent options that most gamers agree have been very beneficial for gaming as a whole. However, the recent spasm of games with separate playable story arcs is one trend that I’m not sure I can get behind.
On its’ surface the idea of multiple story arcs seems like a win for me the gamer. In theory, multiple stories bring multiple play throughs, which equate to multiple bang for my buck. However, multiple stories do not equal multiple fun, and end up being a waste of choice. The dream of making the ultimate computer generated choose your own adventure novel is flawed at its very core, choose your own adventure novels are terrible!
To better help make my argument I’m going to talk about a few games that have multiple story pathways; Infamous, Bioshock, and Fallout 3.
What was great about Bioshock was that they found a way to tell the story without needing cut scenes. By doing this they gave the player a greater sense of immersion. It truly was a huge step for video games and hopefully inspires developers to tell their stories in a similar fashion. That being said, the weakest part of Bioshock was the very end. A true ending couldn’t be given to Bioshock. We have a great game telling a great story, without the use of cut scenes, and at the very end they have to resort to using a cut scene in order to be able to account for how the Little Sisters were treated throughout the game.
Did I really need a choice? Actually choosing to save or harvest a Little Sister didn’t enhance or dampen the emotional experience. It was the look on her face. and the inflection and tone of her voice that made it a powerful bond of gamer and game.
The actual playing of the game was virtually unaffected as well. While it is true you receive more Adam for harvesting the Little Sister, you are provided with gifts of Adam throughout the game if you chose to save them.
May be they could of worked out one solid ending if they had done away with the multiple story element of the game.
Fallout 3, is a bit more complicated as it implements the multiple story arc to a much larger degree. Throughout the main quest you are given many choices that effect the outcome of the game. These choices are then recognized at the end with a lame voiceover repeating the choices you made. While these choices you made had some actual cause and effect while you played, in the end nothing is different. For instance, you either poisoned the water or you didn’t; You either went in and tried to stop the explosion yourself or you sent in the lady. In the end the only difference is the voice over.
It truly was a waste of choice, you didn’t get to see your choices effect the world.
What saves Fallout 3 is the side missions. Each side mission was a mini story in itself and actually did a better job of choice than the main mission. Blowing up or saving Megaton was an actual game choice that actually effected the game. If you chose to blow up Megaton, it was gone…there wasn’t just a voice over telling you that you had chosen to blow up Megaton…roll credits.
Infamous is another game that gives players the perception of choice. Infamous, perhaps more than the two previous titles, could have benefitted from one solid story line.
While I prefer Bioshock’s method of telling story, the comic style cut scenes in Infamous are beautifully done and the story itself is not without merit. Where Infamous struggles is with the two story arc system. Sadly the choices you make have no impact. A true evil badass would never be bossed around by a lady on a headset. Besides how you look on posters, or whether people cheer or scream when you came down the alley, the choices made have zero effect on the game. Whether good or evil, everyone you interact with treats you the same. No matter what, your girlfriend is a b**ch, your buddy is annoying, and you do the same missions. The choices have no emotional connection, like the anguish of a Little Sister in Bioshock. In an early mission you choose whether to give a box of food to the people or to take it all for yourself. Your only interaction with this choice is pressing O or X. You don’t swoop in and take the food from the masses. You don’t take it and distribute it…you just press a button. Then it’s done. You don’t even eat in the game. Since it’s the same game, with no emotional tie downs, the only reason for choosing good or evil is because of the powers. If you are evil you get red powers and if you are good you get white powers. Some of the powers are different and there is no way of getting both at the same time. This is not reason enough to play the game twice.
Many things could have benefitted if extra time and money wasn’t wasted on two story arcs. First the enemies could have been more varied. With a for sure set of available powers the enemies could have been made to interact with the player in a more satisfying manner. Instead of 3 different colored gangs that all shoot you from a far away rooftop, there could have been more personal, and yes linear, firefights. There could have been more side missions or at least more varied side missions. A mission where you shoot a group of people and a mission where you shoot a group of people while turning off blinking red lights are not different missions.
Games can be a great story telling device. In order to do this properly, story needs to be treated like it matters, not like it’s a simple choice like what color hat you choose for your avatar. If developers want to tell two different main stories let them make two different games.