4Player Feature: Show and Tell (Teletext Article – Published on Weekend 21/03/09)
March 15, 2009 § Leave a comment
The BAFTAs came and went this year, revealing some surprising winners and losers. One of the most notable winners of the ceremony was Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4, which was given the honour of three awards, including best Story and Character. In the face of such stout opposition – including Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto 4 and Fallout 3 – it was seen, by some, as a bit of a surprise when Call of Duty 4 won this particular accolade. I am not here to question the wisdom of that decision; rather, I want to talk about why I think Call of Duty 4 has significantly raised the bar in terms of storytelling, for first-person shooters and for video games in general.
Call of Duty 4 may not have had the most complicated characters or even the most complicated of stories, but what it did have was one of the best told stories I have seen in a video game, perhaps even trumping the likes of Bioshock. Call of Duty 4 was a brilliant exercise in storytelling because instead of telling the player what was going on around them, it showed them; it made them feel it.
Who can forget the nail-biting intro sequence, in which you see through the eyes of the recently deposed, middle-eastern president? Who can forget the sombre and haunting coda to Sergeant Paul Jackson’s life? In lesser games, these events would simply be footnotes, delivered via text or cutscene. Call of Duty 4 gives you front-row tickets and makes you experience these things first-hand.
Games are not books; they are a visual medium. But nor are they films, for they possess a crucial interactive element to them. Therefore, it would be just as wrong to treat the player as a reader as it would to treat them as a mere idle observer. It is simply not necessary, not desirable and not appropriate, to have to wade through endless reams of dialogue and plot exposition in a game. At the same time, just showering the player with nicely directed cutscenes won’t do the job either, for it removes the player from the situation.
One of the main advantages of having a first-person perspective is that you are immediately granted with a closer, more tactile experience. Clearly, this gave Call of Duty 4 a leg-up when it was telling its story. But games don’t necessarily need to hold a first person viewpoint for the player to be involved, and I am not advocating that they should. What I am advocating here are three short, simple guidelines which I believe will enhance the storytelling quality of games. One, avoid taking control away from the player; two, avoid the over-exposition of plot through dialogue or text; and three, use the player’s environment – including audio and visual artifacts – to tell the story, wherever and whenever appropriate.