Clive Thompson, at Slate (Internet Archive), argues that the more like a movie a game gets, the less fun it is to play. His primary arguments are that 1) cut scenes distract from the flow of the game, 2) narrative structure imposes order where it’s not wanted and 3) narratives cover weaknesses in game play.
He makes some good points. Cut scenes can get in the way of game play, particularly in games like Xenosaga I: Will to Power, which had — no joke — 30 to 40 minute cut scenes. And while he doesn’t mention this, cut scenes have long been a source of “bait and switch” teasers for developers as they use pre-rendered cut scenes for their box are as a way to distract the player from the game’s otherwise-crappy in-game graphics. However, I think it overplays the disruptive aspects of cut scenes and a strong narriative; in deed, some of the best, ground-setting have had both, and used them wisely.
Just look at Half-Life.
The game was heralded and loved by gamers so much because its storyline was so immersive, and thus, players were able to strongly relate to Freeman. For example, at one point in the game, Freeman is climbing his way through the ventalation system, and overhears military officers discussing him and the situation on the base. Suddenly, the player doesn’t feel like this is happening to Freeman; it feels like its happening to him. But it only has that emotional and intellectual impact because of the clues and plot points that the player picked up earlier in the game. These sorts of narrative techniques, combined with excellent graphics and solid game play, Half-Life’s, are what set that game apart from the kill-or-be-killed demonic zombie games that came before it. Without the narrative, Half-Life would have been just another shooter.
Thompson is right that too many developers are using story as a cover for lack of game evolution. He says it’s a “Hollywood” model, in which they try and hook people on the franchise and its sequels, rather than actually introducing new features into the game. This is true, to a point, but at the same time, a strong, engaging narrative can enhance replay value, just as movie aficionados will happily watch the same film over and over again, hoping to catch something the missed the first time through. Or the second. Or third.
Consider Halo While it was a straight-forward bug hunt, it had a fun, fast-paced story that was as enjoyable as much the second and third times through as it was the first. I realize that some gamers are masochistic enough to play a game through on its most difficult level just to say that they did it, but Halo (and to a lesser extent, Halo 2) had you wanting to return to that world and fight those enemies again and again.
I agree that story telling in a game can be a crutch, but a good story can also transform a mediocre game into something phenomenal. Knights of the Old Republic is one such game: it’s graphics are hardly cutting edge, but the story appealed to millions of fans, who pointed to the game – rather than the recent prequels – as examples of the true Star Wars spirit.
Can narrative hinder a game? Sure. Would I like to see more innovation in game play? You betcha. But I do think you can have liberating, innovative game play and still retain a narrative structure; heck — that is, after all, the secret to Grand Theft Auto’s success.