The Perfect Game – Part 1: Story

After numerous discussions with Brendan, Fletcher and Gemmell about the computer games that I have played and their short comings I decided to put all of these thoughts together.  Why?  I dunno, just to have them all in one place and see if making the perfect game is possible.

With that said, there aren’t many games that I have seriously disliked, yet there has been something about most games that have made it not perfect.  Sometimes that thing is that fact that it’s ended too quickly, been too long (and I’ve put it down and never returned to it), had no storyline, no replay value, or been repetitive after the first ten minutes.  The list of other downsides to games goes on and on.

What I’m going to do is discuss various aspects that the “perfect” game should have.  I’ll give examples of games that have implemented these features (or at least tried to) and counter examples showing games that completely lack them.  The order of the various sections will be completely random at first, although one day I hope to put all the ideas together into an essay style document (a la Brooks’s “The Mythical Man Month”).

People might not agree with what I’ve said, so feel free to leave comments.  Also, a game that combines ALL of the aspects I discuss might be too bloated (and in essence, a bad game) or it might just be so awesome that it causes the universe to implode on itself.

Section 1 – Story and character motivation

Alyx kissing her father

 On thing that any good game needs is a good story, you need a reason to be playing the game.

A lot of games originally included their story in the user manual that accompanied the game, this meant that plays would have to read through the manually to find out why the game was being played.  Other games would begin by showing the story at the start of each game.  As technologies have gotten better, games have started to include cut scenes and in game movies/acting to explain the story.  The best way to present the story depends on the game itself.  Several games start with a video that gives the player all the back story they need to begin playing (and understanding what is happening) other games feature more of a “cold start” where the player begins with no knowledge and everything that they know about the game world/story is learnt through the game.

A good example of this is the Half Life series.  The first Half Life game begins with you on a train.  Some information is displayed (such as the characters name) but at first you have no idea what is going on.  As the train moves you can deduce that you are in some sort of secret lab.  When you get off the train you get informed that you are one of the research assistants, and it’s a normal day at the office.  As the game progresses, things happen and the day turns out to be far from normal.  The writers of Half Life chose to keep a lot of the back story hidden, leaving the player to make assumptions and learn things along the way.  Part of what drives you to play the game is to understand what exactly is going on.  The other thing that drives you is to survive/escape.

Half Life 2 (and it’s expansions) follow the same sort of formula, you are given little to no information at the beginning, but as the game progress you learn more and more.  Even at the end the player still has a lot of questions though.  You never want the player to know everything, which is sort of a reflection of real life.

As the game progresses so should the story, you should learn more about what is happening, more about the characters, relationships should develop.  In a good game you should become attached to the characters and immersed into the world.  In the Half Life 2 games you begin to become attached to the characters and want them to survive, you feel bad if one of them dies, gets hurt or betrays you.  Half Life doesn’t have any cut scences or videos, and all the story is told in the game through the character acting an interation.  Characters will talk to you (and each other), but the story telling should be natural and fluid.  The image above shows Alyx kissing her father as she is about to leave the room.  You can feel the connection between the characters.  Their dialog and interactions seem natural, its almost like they are just “being themselves” and you’re a bystander.

The opposite of this is the forced interations and story tellings that are in some games.  It doesn’t feel natural when everytime you walk into a room everyone stops, turns to you, then explains the situation like it’s your first day on the job.  Sometimes the way in which the story is delivered just doesn’t drive it home.  Need For Speed: Underground’s story is terrible.  The basic gist of the story is that you want to be cool and you want to hook in with this hot chick, and the only way that you can do this is to be some (already) cool guy in a race, and the only way to do that is to make a name for yourself.  Some random chick who you’ve never seen before offers to help you.  As the game progresses, you have to race her to move up in the ranks, which she doesn’t like.  Finally you race the cool guy and once you win, you race the hot chick from the start (which most people have forgotten about by now).  Once you be her you are officially fully sick.  The entire story consists of around 5 cutscences that add up to a total of about 60 seconds, and are spread out over 120 races.  For most people slowly playing the game, they will have forgotten what the whole point of the story is after 10 races and will just think they are there to drive really fast in imported japanese cars.  It’s hard to put a story into a racing game, and lots of games don’t even try (Gran Turismo for example) and I think if you can’t do something right, sometimes you shouldn’t do it at all.  The experience of most of the players wouldn’t have been any worse if the horrible “story” wasn’t present in NFS: Underground.

As mentioned before, a good game should immerse the character.  You should lose yourself in the story and become one with the character.  If your character gets betrayed, you should feel betrayed.  If your character is about to die, you should feel worried.  A great example of this was Portal.  As I played it got completely sucked into the story and in the end felt like it was me who was trapped in a lab.

The moral of this section:

A good game should have a good story.  The way that the story is told should compliment the game and should seem natural. The player should feel as if they are actually in the position of the character that they are controlling.


This concludes my first blog on the perfect game.  Hopefully it wasn’t too painful to read, as I just wrote the words as they came to mind.

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