Ever since I completed Half-Life 2: Episode Two, I’ve been thinking about how stories are used in video games. Plenty of games need no story to be fun (Pac-Man, Tetris, Bejeweled, etc.). Similarly, there are games that revolve around a strong storyline. Looking through my computer game collection, I find that only a handful fall into this latter category:
- Half-Life (1, 2, Episode 1, and Episode 2)
- System Shock 2
This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the stories in any of the other games I own. There are a number of titles I considered for the above short list (the Splinter Cell series, Elder Scrolls 3 and 4, Bioshock, and others), but none of them were as memorable as the titles listed. I consider Half-Life 2 to be the pinnacle of the games I’ve played, and so will use it as my working example.
One thing makes the Half-Life 2 world so gripping: a believable and memorable cast of characters. In order to create such a cast, three core things are required:
- Good Writers
- This is a no-brainer. Without a team of good writers, any potential blockbuster story can fall flat. And most importantly, they must share a consistent vision of the world they are building. One of the hallmarks of the Half-Life universe is the inclusion of some ever-present mystery. There are always unanswered questions in the game, and Half-Life 2 is chock full of them. In fact, I’ve read a number of reviews of HL2 that derided the game on the seemingly cryptic storyline. Valve, in their typical genius fashion, was building a foundation from which to expand the story in Episodes 1 and 2. Keeping a number of unanswered questions in the story sparks the imagination of the player, and provides something to build on in the future. Engaging the viewer’s imagination is the key; do that and you’re golden.
- Strong Voice Acting
- The voice acting in Half-Life 2 is among the best in the industry (System Shock 2, Bioshock, and a few others are similarly excellent). Being able to bring strong emotion to an animated character is undoubtedly harder than it looks. Valve’s inclusion of the developer commentary in the game provides a glimpse of this. Merle Dandridge (the actress portraying Alyx Vance) is interviewed a number of times throughout the commentary, and she discusses the challenges (and benefits) of voice acting. The performance that she gives at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is nothing short of stunning.
- Character Emotion
- As gaming technology improves, the portrayal of character emotion has similarly gotten better. The in-game character models in Half-Life 2 are very sophisticated, and have a wide range of available expressions. Watch carefully during the various story-driven scenes in the Half-Life 2 games; each character’s posture, face, and actions all help believably portray that character’s current emotional state. This attention to detail builds an increasingly believable situation. As such, I become a part of the story; I am Gordon Freeman. His friends are my friends; his situations are my problems to solve. It gets no more gripping than that for me.
Are there other games that stick out in your mind as having a strong story? I’d be interested in hearing what other memorable titles you can think of.