So first off, I’d like to apologize for that title. I know, it’s more than a little wordy. Believe it or not that was the end product of twenty minutes of thinking. I managed reduce a very long description into merely a mouthful. Fun fact, this is called a lexical gap. That is when a language doesn’t have a single word to describe something and has to resort to a group of words. Which is somewhat humorous as lexical gap is, by itself, a lexical gap.
Storytelling in video games is often hit or miss. In the beginning with text based games story was basically all you had. As technology advanced in fits and bursts storytelling has often been left in the wayside. Presently we are in a beautiful era, and story is at the forefront. Even fairly basic indie games can not only have fantastic stories, but are often carried by them.
But it has to be acknowledged that there is quite a spectrum. Some stories are dramatically better than others. At the top of the spectrum, for obvious reasons, is a whole bunch of RPGs. Directly underneath those are games like Uncharted and The Last of Us. Which, if nothing else, should be a good indication of how skilled Naughty Dog is as a developer.
So what put’s these games so high on the list? What makes them top tier story games, aside from the simplistic answer of ‘they have a good story’. Which, if you really thought I was going to answer with that, you obviously have not read my previous articles.
In fact there are two very important reasons that these games have great stories. These reasons are: stuff that’s written down for no particular reason and is kind of just there, and incidental dialogue.
Alright so, stuff that’s written down for no particular reason and is kind of just there. More lexical gaps forcing me to make very longwinded explanations. This is one of those things in games that everybody tends to make fun of in a vacuum but nobody can actually find a better idea for.
The core premise is simple. As the player roams around the game world they repeatedly come across diary entrees or audio logs. These detail events that transpired in the past. In essence, these come across as enticingly potent short stories woven into the narrative.
Now faithful readers will connect this idea to one of previous articles and the concept of an empty world. Essentially, storytelling is most impactful when it hits a delicate blend of being given to the player and forcing them to figure it out. When a game is 40% telling the story, 40% showing the story, and 20% player putting the pieces together, you have a beautifully delivered narrative.
Stuff that’s written down for no particular reason and is kind of just there perfectly embodies this when done right. It comes up a lot in horror games, like Dead Space or the aforementioned The Last of Us. In both games it is very common for players to find stuff that’s written… You know what screw this, I’m just going to abbreviate that to Stuff and you’ll get what I mean, yeah?
So in both games the players find Stuff all the time, and it can often narrate the situation before them. There’s a section in The Last of Us where the player enters a system of drains near the coast. Before entering they scavenge a boat and find a Stuff written as a journal entry. A man explains that he is going to enter the drains and try to hold up with some survivors. A large amount of zombies indicates it didn’t go well. As the player navigates the area they find more Stuff. The boat man developed a community here that was eventually overrun. They resorted to a last stand, where you find several dead bodies. Upon finally exiting the drains through a jammed door, you find the actual entrance has been barricaded. A message scrawled on the wall warns people away from the area.
The whole thing is poignant and sad and indicative of brilliant storytelling. The level was there for game pacing purposes; Naughty Dog wanted another section with unbroken zombie fighting. Instead of shoehorning in a rushed subplot that bloated the game, they gave you this story from the past. It was a story for you to discover as you played. It kept you interested and prevented the otherwise monotonous section from fatiguing you.
So we have Stuff, and that kind of makes sense despite how long it takes to adequately describe it. What about incidental dialogue though? What the heck even is that?
Incidental dialogue is the stuff that happens in between more direct storytelling. When characters talk to each other it is called dialogue. It usually happens during set-piece moments or cutscenes. In moments where there isn’t anything else going on but the narrative itself.
Incidental dialogue is what the characters say to each other outside of these dramatic moments. The random jokes or bits of dialogue that happen as you wander across a field or maneuver through an otherwise empty building to loot.
These moments are of tremendous value. They give us insight into the characters beyond their progress through the story. They let us see the characters in a different light. We learn about their opinions and personalities in a new way. It helps develop them and give life to a story beyond simply it’s plot. Characterization is what drives the story of a game from good to stupendous. Incidental dialogue is what makes this happen.
Let’s consider, for a moment, Destiny. Now I know, the story of Destiny wasn’t exactly delivered in quite the spectacular fashion a lot of us were hoping for. But there’s a lot here that’s still pretty amazing, particularly as the expansion were released, and extra particularly with the release of The Taken King. Despite its somewhat lackluster introduction, the new dialogue and voice action for the character of Ghost in the expansion is some of the best I’ve seen in a while.
There’s a mission where you’re rushing to assist an AI called Rasputin. During a lull in combat, your Ghost takes a moment to chide you:
“As a fellow inorganic life form, I would like to tell you that Rasputin has a much better setup than I do. He has a secret bunker, and space weapons. I live in your backpack.”
It’s simple, and small, and completely irrelevant to the story. But that line of dialogue does so much to make me understand and care about Ghost. In the original game the quirky little robot came across as simply a, well, NOT-quirky little robot. A floating, emotionless automaton sent by the Traveler to open doors for you. But in the expansion? He has life and personality. He’s silly and fun loving, caring about you and his job but still with enough emotion to be wistful and envious of other robots.
And I got all that from one line of dialogue.
It’s stuff like that. It’s peppered throughout and delivered in such a way that it doesn’t NEED to be noticed. It simply CAN be, that truly develops the story of these games to the extreme. We know Ghost is a quirky little robot. We know Ellie from The Last of Us loves puns. We know that Iron Bull and Sera from Dragon Age: Inquisition are both happy-go-lucky murder hobos. This is all made incredibly clear to us because of all the random and incredibly enjoyable things they say to each other when nothing else is going on.
Good storytelling is done in a subtle fashion. It’s Stuff like that can make a player happy. See what I did there, with the capital S? That’s subtle storytelling. Frigging nailed it.