The problem with Video Games
During my play through of Halo 5 Guardians the problem of how a compelling story can be told within a Video Game . The problem isn’t the writing, the acting or the stories themselves it’s the medium that is the biggest obstacle. As gaming has moved more into the mainstream developers have pushed the genre away from the story less, characterless Video Games towards a more ambitious, narrative driven product. Games like Halo attempt to place you in the middle of an Epic story spanning Galaxies full of battles, alien worlds and discovery but ultimately no matter how hard they try I’ve still yet to be immersed in an engrossing, compelling story.
I’ve Chosen Halo because it’s the franchise i’ve explored the most outside of the main games by reading the books, graphic novels and spin off TV products such as Nightfall and The Fall of Reach. I’ve immersed myself in that Universe beyond simply playing the games because it’s such a rich canon full of possibility and some terrific stories and Characters. My favourite book without a doubt is The Fall of Reach which tells the origins story of the Spartan II program as well as the loss of the UNSC main ship building colony. The story was well received by critics and paved the way for further Halo Novels but it also shows the difference between the way stories can be told from books to video games.
Video games have traditionally had a fairly rigid story line typically told in brief cutscenes before a mission and on completion with additional element added in game. A common mechanic employed by most games to ‘flesh out’ the story is to plant collectibles throughout the game world for players to hunt down and find. Historically these have been voice logs that add extra information for those willing to find them and whilst they certainly add something they are often only small fragments of a larger picture. How many time have you gone back and reviewed them all to get the full story?
Books often have hundreds of pages to introduce characters, set the scene and tell the story. Take my favourite book series Stephen Kings Seminal The Dark Tower series that story took 8 books and thousands of pages to tell. But the world it Stephen King built was dense with lore, packed with rich characters and memorable scenes at almost every turn. For those who haven’t read the books they tell the story of the Gunslinger Roland Deschain and his group of friends as they attempt to reach the Dark Tower and Storm it’s walls. What follows is several thousand pages and 20 years of writing later we reach the climax of the story. But as with many of the great works of literature the beauty is in the journey, the experiences, the revelations, the places, the faces, the people you meet along the way and never the ending.
Video Games are constrained by the medium they are attempting to use to tell that story. How many people would sit through a 10 minute cut-scene before they can start the next mission? I’d like to wager it would be very few indeed. As the technology has improved so has the presentation and they are now at the point where they are stunningly cinematic but they are still far too short to get all the key information across. The below cut-scene which is from is a perfect example of the inherent problem associated with the tradition of using a cut-scene at the beginning of a mission. In this case the mission is called Blue Team and is a really important moment in the game for several key reasons the main one being the first time The Chief has been back with his old team in years. For players who haven’t delved into the wider fiction Kelly, Fred and Linda are just there alongside you and with no explanation of who they are and where they have been. These 3 characters are with you from that moment forward and are absolutely central to the story yet they have no back story, not introduction and not a single mention of why they are there. I appreciate Halo has always portrayed The Chief as an empty vessel the player pours themselves into but come on that’s just poor.
The rest of the game follows suit with largely forgettable point to point combat punctuated by more 30 second cut scenes that fail to really tell you anything. Instead of being engrossed in the story you simply progress through it with the story falling further out of view with every battle. It’s not just me either many of the players I’ve talked to have felt the same and they cover the spectrum of gamers lore seeking Halo nerds to casual gamers who just like to run around and shoot stuff. Those of us that have immersed ourselves in the wider Halo canon seem just as confused by the events of Halo 5 as the casual players. As i mentioned earlier it’s not just Halo that suffers like this, Destiny is another high profile AAA game that couldn’t string a coherent sentence together.
So what is the solution? Do we just accept games like Halo will never be able to really tell a solid story like more mature mediums like books and Television or do we demand they improve? For me it has to be the latter. How they go about taking the next step is up for debate but the options are to either provide far more information or cut the story back to a much smaller scale. Forget the Galaxy spanning, story arc’s and just go for something more digestible something more narratively dense for players to immerse themselves in?
There are of course other options like DLC episodes that would not only enrich the story but also prolong it’s relevance and shorten that wait until the next game. DLC could work well with Halo expanding on the origins of Blue team and taking you back to the beginning of their Halo story. A Prologue for Blue team could have been run alongside the same for Fireteam Osiris instead of that bold but pointless hunt the truth campaign that added absolutely 0 to Halo 5. Perhaps they could have created a Halo 5 prologue TV series like they did with Nightfall but filling in the blanks between Halo 4 and Halo 5 most of which exists in the Halo Escalation comic series. Why not bundle that with the game and then at least you would have all the information and back stories for the new Spartans.
A follow up to the Spartan Ops formula could also work well here providing a steady stream of additional content to flesh out the characters and the Universe in a way the main game simply didn’t. We could have playable small DLC chapters showcasing the main players in the Halo Universe and you could even extend that to include key events such as the encounter at Harvest & what happened during the Ghost of Onyx novel.
Halo has so much wasted potential and without radically altering the Halo story formula i can’t see how Halo 6 could avoid the same fate. Story Telling in video games is something I’d like to revisit in more depth.