Friday, 1 June 2018

Discussion point: What kind of game deserves a high score in Story and Setting?

By The TAG Team

Story and Setting

If puzzles are the defining element of adventure games, story and setting are essential for a full adventure game experience. In the beginning, adventure games often had no plot beyond “find seventeen treasures” and the game world could have modern computer facilities and robots next to a medieval dungeon with sword wielding goblins. Nowadays, these early efforts seem lacking, although their puzzles can still be excellent. Indeed, as such genres as puzzleless IF and visual novels attest, good interactive stories can be enjoyed without any puzzles.

They sure are more enjoyable than climbing this beanstalk

While in judging puzzles and interfaces we can keep at least a semblance of objectivity, evaluating stories appears inevitably subjective. So far, the games with highest story scores could be grouped under a common label of adventure, with such varying subgenres as sword and sorcery, science fiction, detective story and spy fiction. Often these games have had witty humour and they have rarely been grim dark, KGB being the clearest exception. Of course, adventure gamers often enjoy only these genres, but could we find good stories in all genres? For instance, could a romcom adventure game be enjoyable? Other questions you might consider:
  • Complexity of a plot often raises the possibility that the plot contradicts itself. Should we emphasise complexity of a plot over its coherence or the other way around?
  • Should we consider it important if a game tries to be more than mere entertainment and makes a statement with its plot?
  • How traditionally should we have to interpret a plot? Could a game emphasising mood over narrative score highly in this category? Could we even have a good surrealist adventure game?

Surrealist IF at least does exist

  • We often think of the setting as a mere backdrop for the narrative of the adventure game. Still, could a rich and complex setting allow for a high score, even if the game had a minimal or even non-existent plot (say, a treasure hunt in a detailed Third Age Middle Earth)?


  1. Storytelling is a subject not limited to video games, and so much literature has been written about it. "Story" by Robert McKee seems especially popular.

    I'll again dump some relevant articles, with an adventure game focus:

    Tell me a Story, by Yahtzee
    Playing the fool, by Yahtzee

    (Those are the remaining ones of Yahtzee's Depressingly Common Adventure Game Design Flaw series.)

  2. I'd describe a good story/setting as interesting and rich, and internally consistent; it needs to feel immersive and perhaps even clever. Sounds pretty vague, now that I write it down...

    Hey, I've played that IF in the screenshot. Very interesting, I thought, but I'm too bone-headed to properly understand the surrealistic undertones. And failed to survive the desert.

    1. I am not really sure if there's anything else to understand, but the feeling of dread, when things around you start to fall apart and even going outside your apartment seems intimidating. I really have no idea what to make of the ending and who or what the little person is supposed to be.

  3. On complexity vs. plot holes: Plot holes are just one form of sloppy writing. You could reduce this question to "Should we value having strengths over lack of weaknesses?"

    I think plot (along with characterisation) is a major feature that separates stories (arrangement of events in a sequence to create meaning) from other media that convey themes and meaning, such as the essay or article. A story that delivers its content by mere exposition, that is to say lacking a plot, fails at taking advantage of being a story. (In The Brothers Karamazov, a character practically spouts a philosophical essay from his mouth at one point, and I thought that was a clumsy way of exploring philosophical themes.) An avant-garde plotless mood piece isn't really a story but something else entirely.

    1. Tastes vary. I, for my part, have always greatly enjoyed Dostoevsky's works and especially those long philosophical ramblings - partly because I've studied philosophy and I am professionally interested of such speeches, partly because I've met many people who (especially after few pints) start to get into the philosophical mood and make long speeches about all the things in the world.

      I don't think we even need to go very avant-garde to find "stories", which have almost no story or plot at all. For instance, even some mainstream movies have very little narrative (say, Lost in Translation or Before Sunrise -trilogy) - we just follow people going around, doing almost nothing and at most speaking with one another (Robert McKee would call it a Miniplot). Personally, I find such movies can often be quite as or even more satisfying than traditional structured plots.

  4. One of the most noteworthy ones, when discussing examples of the very ”best” or ”greatest” adventure game stories, is YU-NO. Yes, it's an H-game. But those who dismiss it for that will seriously underestimate it.

    Firstly, the scale is insane. It starts innocently enough, presenting itself as a harem comedy, but gradually grows into a complex sci-fi adventure of truly epic proportions. This page lists it as having 1,3 million words. For comparison, War and Peace is half a million words and the entire Harry Potter series 1 million words. Even crazier is that almost none of it is filler. There are visual novels with similar length, but which often pad their content with e.g. slice of life or repetition (Ever17 is particularly notorious for ”chicken sandwiches”). Somehow YU-NO manages to maintain good pacing throughout the 50 hours or so it takes to complete it.

    Secondly, by making extensive use of nonlinearity, it's the kind of story that can only be told in a video game. (There *is* an anime adaptation scheduled to air this year however, but I wonder how they're going to pull it off.) Marriage of story and gameplay is achieved by turning the plot itself into a labyrinth, a giant puzzle to solve, which you navigate via time travel. There are many moments where the player can outwit a character by clever use of time travel. The time travel and parallel worlds are explained with an in-depth theoretical paper found in-game, making YU-NO a work of hard sci-fi.

    There's also emotional depth (although this is subjective). The last route (aka ”epilogue”) is probably the most emotionally invested I've been in a story. Ever. The main character, who starts off as kind of a jerk, goes through this emotional transformation and fgnegf uvf bja snzvyl. Ur sbhaq unccvarff ol pbzcyrgr nppvqrag naq nonaqbaf uvf sbezre zrnavatyrff, rira ungrshy tbny bs svaqvat uvf sngure gb cbgragvnyyl rknpg eriratr. Then there's yet some more adventuring and melodrama but what I ROT13'd was the most impactful to me.

    It does have its flaws. It attempts to tackle morally ambiguous themes, but whether it does this successfully/sincerely or not is up to debate. Although it tries to stay within the boundaries of good taste (portraying sexual relationships meaningfully and developing female characters properly), there are some groanworthy lapses. Some people inevitably will tolerate the sexual content more than others, and I often wish it wasn't an H-game.

    There are those who criticise the epilogue, claiming ”it makes former events and characters almost irrelevant”, ”it's rushed” (despite it lasting 10 hours!), ”this or that character acted too stupidly”, ”the [morally ambiguous stuff] is actually pandering”, or that ”the linearity is disappointing after the main game”. Yes, they are admittedly, to some extent, right. Many arguments can be made by fans and detractors.

    However, to those critics I will say it's still better than the similarly hyped visual novels Clannad and it's After Story or Muv-Luv Alternative (both of which contained MUCH more problematic/incoherent stuff, I don't get how those get away with it) or Ever17's Coco route (which was just heaps of exposition and twists for the sake of twists). I agree with this guy.

    YU-NO is ambitious but flawed. It may be the ”greatest” but not necessarily the ”best” videogame story. Nevertheless, it had a huge impact on Japanese visual novels and adventure games and has been called ”The Evangelion of VNs”. Some fans have been touting the upcoming anime as ”guaranteed AOTY”.

    1. Having no experience of the game itsef, I'll just raise few quite incidental points. Firstly, I am quite skeptical about the word count of a book/movie/adventure game being in any way a reasonable measure of its quality (otherwise, short stories would just be essentially bad).

      Secondly, having now played a number of French erotic adventure game. I would like to generalise your point about Hentai to a question - can any form of erotica be combined with a good story/plot, at least without the "titillating" part of the adventure game (or other story form) being completely irrelevant to the plot?

    2. Well, greater length allows for more things like development of characters and plot, but more important is the content-to-length ratio. I have to admit I haven't been much interested in short stories, although I did recently start reading Anton Chekhov.

      >can any form of erotica be combined with a good story/plot,
      >at least without the "titillating" part of the adventure game
      >(or other story form) being completely irrelevant to the plot?

      You might want to look into Katawa Shoujo. It's a free visual novel about having relationships with disabled girls, and probably most tasteful in regard to sexual content, from those eroges I have played so far.

    3. Personally I think that many writers of huge epic tales would greatly benefit by practicing first with short stories - or even better, poems. This would teach them an economy of words and hopefully lessen their need to fill pages after pages with irrelevant subsubsubplots, scenery for scenery's sake and such like.

    4. When I hear scenery for scenery's sake I immediately get flashbacks to the LOTR trilogy, there are parts where you simply start wondering why every last thing has to be described. As Laukku says here there has to be more content for the length, and that is a strong point for short stories. I particularly find Steven King's and Asimov's shorts to be better than their full length novels, the content is just more dense and they leave enough to the imagination to fully enjoy them as books.

      For video games the format leans more to leaving less to the imagination, but teaching the writers to be more effective with their words would certainly help, a lot of our more recent games (Mass Effect comes to mind) simply puts in too much filler in their dialogue to dig through for very little reward, which breaks the pacing and the sense of fun when done badly.

  5. This is something I feel was greatly affected by technology. The older games, for so many reasons, could not express the depth of plot and story as well as newer ones, often for lack of disk space, or graphical and processor limitations. Sometimes, that was okay -- Maniac Mansion, for example, had a 3 second intro. You knew more of the plot from reading the back of the box -- but it was still a wildly enjoyable game, because the plot barely mattered. It was just "go and rescue our friends and stop the evil man". Not very fleshed out.

    Another example would be PQ1 (which I thoroughly enjoyed, unlike the reviewer here). If you read everything(game, box, manual, etc) you'd find that there was a decent plot to it: here's a young, up-and-coming police officer, ready to grow in his career, who stumbles upon a big drug bust, and then reunites with his high school girlfriend,who helpes fight the drug lord as part of her redemption from living a life of sin recently.

    All that, and most people barely understood the plot in that game, because 1) it wasn't really as important, and 2) the game wasn't able to spend a lot of kilobytes showing it. Cut scenes and intro movies weren't a thing yet, and really wouldn't be until the age of CD-ROM games came along. But we still had fun with those games.

    Setting is a lot more important. Leaving adventures, this is part of the reason, for example, that people love the Grand Theft Auto games as much as they do. Even the early top-down ones were richly decorated cities with a variety of places to explore and tools to use, and the open exploration meant that you could explore it freely, at will. Was there much of a plot? Not really. Each GTA game is basically "Here's a low-level gangster/hitman/whatever, help him earn respect and become higher up in his position. The plot and story didn't matter at all, because of the environment.