The Video Game Plot Scale

You know what they say about great minds, and Stokes isn’t the only one overthinking video game plots. But while he’s delving into the types of stories a video game can tell, I’ve been thinking about the increasing importance these stories play in our gaming experience. It used to be that video games were solely a test of skill. They might test your reflexes, your ability to solve puzzles , or your ability to think strategically. Oftentimes you needed a combination of skills. Starcraft requires strategy and reflexes. Tetris requires spacial reasoning and reflexes. But generally, the fun of a game came from mastering it — surmounting the challenges to get the highest score possible.

However, over the past 20 years, we’ve seen increasing emphasis on plot. Target audiences got older and wanted more sophisticated narratives than “our Princess is in another castle.” The technology got good enough for cut scenes, first with text, and then with voice acting. And while the early games were written entirely by the programmers, it quickly became standard for dedicated writers to be involved from day 1.

All this led to something curious: the fun of video games no longer came solely from beating them. It came from the stories too. Think of the survival horror genre. Silent HillResident Evil (the old ones, before they became shooters). You can’t say that our enjoyment of those games comes entirely from puzzle solving and combat. A huge part of the experience is atmosphere and storytelling.

So games are partially a test of skill, and partially a vehicle for plot. And the relative importance of those things varies from game to game.

I fully expect that nobody is going to precisely agree with those pie charts. Some of you probably start mashing the buttons the second you sense a cutscene coming on. Others of you have a Sephiroth figurine on your nightstand. But my point is that it’s no longer true that the fun of a game comes entirely from gameplay, and it hasn’t been for a while.

(NOTE: the pie charts are a little misleading, because this is NOT a zero sum game. Making the plot better doesn’t mean you have to make the gameplay worse. But it’s interesting to consider these two qualities as a ratio: to what extent is the game a pure test of skill, and to what extent is it a gripping yarn?)

What really got me thinking about this was LA Noire, which puts you into the shoes of a 1940s police detective. (It’s extremely influenced by LA Confidential, down to the steely Irish captain.) This was produced by the same developers as Grand Theft Auto, and at first glance it’s got a ton in common. You can drive around a huge urban area. You can get in fistfights and shootouts. You get sent on missions after lengthy cutscenes. The formula seems familiar.

But over the weekend, I was having trouble chasing down a fleeing suspect. And after a couple failed attempts to catch him, a dialogue box popped up to ask if I’d like to skip the action sequence. This would NOT negatively impact my score, the game assured me.

Now can you imagine Grand Theft Auto giving you the chance to just skip a shootout and move on? Of course not. (It does often present you with multiple missions to take on at any given point, but that’s not the same.) But to the LA Noire team, the action sequences were not the point of the game. The focal point is the interrogations, uncovering the truth and the lies. In other words, LA Noire places story first. I’m not pointing this out in a negative way. I just think it’s interesting that Grand Theft Auto 4 lets you skip all the cutscenes but you have to do the car chases, whereas LA Noire lets you skip the car chases but not the cutscenes.

Okay, so some games are more plot-centric than others. What I think we need is a scale that allows us to make intelligent comparisons.

The Video Game Plot Scale

1 – No plot at all

EXAMPLES: Tetris, Bejeweled, Minesweeper

These are the pure puzzle and strategy games. I’m having trouble thinking of any action games that fall into this category, because once you’ve established an enemy, even a fairly abstract one, it’s hard not to also establish a basic plot. In a way Galaga doesn’t have a plot, but in another way an outer space battle against impossible odds is the greatest plot of all.

2 – Tiny germ of a story

EXAMPLES: Super Mario Brothers, Frogger, Angry Birds, Double Dragon, Contra, Mortal Kombat

I’d argue that even Pac Man belongs in this category instead of category 1, because those are GHOSTS that are chasing him. Once you can anthropomorphize your protagonist and antagonist, even a little, you’re in category 2.

3 – The setting plays a large part in the game, but there’s not much plot to speak of

EXAMPLES: Left 4 Dead, Myst, SimCity, Portal

These games barely have any plot, but they do have lots of atmosphere, and that’s a critical part of their appeal.

4 – Basic story shapes gameplay

EXAMPLES: Legend of Zelda (the original), Castlevania II, Civilization, Metroid

You have a big goal, and you need to accomplish a bunch of little goals first. You need to fight Ganon, but first you need to get all those pieces of the Triforce. And to do that, first you need to get the raft. The plot is the reason why you do the things you do. But note that there isn’t a whole lot of dialogue or exposition. You proceed from little goals to big goals to victory, but you don’t learn much along the way.

5 – A simple plot is gradually revealed

EXAMPLES: Call of Duty series, Halo series, Bioshock

This is the first category in which the game attempts to tell a complete story, giving you new information and sending you in new unexpected directions. Note that my examples are first person shooters. That should tell you that the plots are definitely subsidiary to the action. There’s just enough plot to keep the action moving, but not a lot of extra plot.

6 – Plot unfolds through frequent cutscenes

EXAMPLES: Ocarina of Time, Assassins Creed series, Grand Theft Auto series, Red Dead Redemption, Shadow of the Colosus

These games have a lot of story to tell and a lot of characters to keep track of. But they don’t rise to the level of hardcore role playing games.

7 – Plot is complex and takes a lot of the player’s time

EXAMPLES: Mass Effect series, Final Fantasy series, Fallout series, basically any RPG

These are the games where the story is a huge part of the appeal. The developers want you to fall in love with these characters and care deeply about the worlds they live in. There’s going to be a ton of voice acting and cutscenes that are longer than most Adult Swim shows.

8 – Plot is central, action scenes are optional

EXAMPLES: LA Noire

There are skill-based elements, but they can be partially or completely breezed over so that the plot can continue. The game exists primarily to tell a tale.

9 – Plot is everything, controller used only to advance the story

EXAMPLES: Heavy Rain

At the top of the scale, the game is basically a playable novel. The controller is only used to advance the plot. It’s possible that the game might ask you to do some things that require reflexes and dexterity, but that’s not why you play the game. You’re in it for the story.

10 – Any book for the Amazon Kindle

Buttons flip the pages back and forth

 

Okay, there are a lot of games that won’t fit neatly onto this scale. And I realize I’m blurring the line between the IMPORTANCE of the plot and its contribution to the overall fun of a game. Angry Birds is a great example. I put it way down at 2, because it barely has any plot at all. But obviously, the graphics, sound effects, and catchy music play a huge role in its success. We could easily imagine a game that play exactly the same, but with brightly colored cannonballs instead of birds. It would not be nearly as popular.

Ditto Portal. I ranked that as category 3, because it doesn’t have much of a plot at all. But as the computer goes from comically deadpan to chilling, and you begin to realize the whole lab was abandoned long ago, it really gets under your skin. No one who’s played Portal would say that its plot isn’t “important.” Indeed, the fact that the plot isn’t revealed in obvious ways like cutscenes is part of what makes it so effective.

So this discussion is far from over, and the scale is a work in progress. But one thing we can agree on is that video game stories are getting more ambitious in scope. What’s not clear yet is how to balance story with gameplay in a natural way. I’m definitely not a fan of cutscenes. Some of those RPGs can feel like a movie broken up into short chunks, with a video game stuck in between. And elements of Heavy Rain, like moving the controller back and forth to brush a character’s teeth, seems way too Mario Party to take seriously. Personally, I think games work the best when the story is advanced without the player losing control – check out the Half-Life series, or any of the other stuff from Valve. And games like LA Noire and Mass Effect give the player a choice of what to say, so even when the plot is predetermined it doesn’t feel that way.

It’s going to be interesting watching developers explore the upper parts of the scale. It’s getting to the point where they can put us inside an interactive movie. The question is, do we want that? Or would that take too much game out of the game?

25 Comments on “The Video Game Plot Scale”

  1. Chadd Derkins #

    I would really disagree that Portal doesn’t have a plot. I’d say its plot is just as important and integral as in, say, Final Fantasy games, but the way it is presented is different. Games like Final Fantasy have expository cutscenes, but more and more that’s becoming a thing of the past. The interesting thing about video games is that as they evolve, interactivity and storyline can be intertwined in ways that make them almost inseparable. Games like Braid and Portal are good early examples of this. If Portal’s plot was presented in lengthy cut scenes instead of seamlessly intertwined with game play, but otherwise exactly the same, I think you’d have given it a different ranking.

     
    • Matthew Belinkie #

      I think what we need is TWO scales – one that indicates how MUCH plot the game has, and another that indicates how IMPORTANT that plot is to your enjoyment of the game.

      So for instance, any of the Final Fantasys have WAY more plot than Portal. It’s just no contest. But in terms of how important the plot is, maybe they rank the same. Another good example is the Grand Theft Auto vs. LA Noire comparison. I bet Grand Theft Auto has more plot overall – more characters, more missions, etc. However, clearly story is more important in LA Noire.

       
      • Maitland #

        Totally agree with you both. I think Portal belongs in category 5. ;)

         
        • Paul M #

          What this scale is really measuring is the extent to which the plot is force-fed to the player, and to what extent it can be explored/invented.

          In fact, measuring plot by cutscenes is regressive in a way – part of the joy of a game like Half-Life 2 or Bioshock is the way that to some extent, you as the player need to discover the plot. There may be an overall direction that you have to go, but generally you are given some freedom to explore. In the long highway section of Half-Life 2 you will find abandoned outposts with just enough evidence of what happened there to make it interesting. Bioshock tells most of its story – a rather complex one, IMO – through optional audio logs that you have to find. This storytelling method is unique in the history of art, and it really gives these games a huge portion of their punch.

           
  2. Rex Schrader #

    The interesting thing about Angry Birds is that there are a number of other games with nearly identical game play. Crush the Castle, for example, has very similar mechanics. I certainly enjoyed playing it and it doesn’t have any more plot than Angry Birds. It does have a challenging skill and physics based game play, though. If there was a story, it didn’t seem to matter at all.

    Frankly, I thought the super cutesy artwork of Angry Birds DETRACTED from the game play. Poor little pigs, just trying to get along in the world.

     
  3. Benjamin Ragheb #

    What about adventure games?

    Oddly enough, I just played through The Secret of Monkey Island (with my girlfriend, on her iPad) this weekend. I grew up loving graphic adventure games, but other forms of video game never really appealed to me, so when the genre sort of died out I basically lost interest in gaming.

    From my perspective of “listening to other people talk about games” it has been interesting to hear that plot and story are supposedly becoming a bigger part of newer games. A friend of mine raved about Portal specifically, and while it seems like a fun/challenging game with an interesting backdrop, it doesn’t seem to me like there is much of a plot. Or, you could take the plot away and you would still need to go through the same motions to complete the game.

    So I’m having a hard time figuring out where I’d put Monkey Island, Space Quest, or Gabriel Knight on that list. Story is extremely important to those games, but the story isn’t revealed by cutscenes (there are cutscenes, but relatively few). Story is deeply integrated into the gameplay; in other words, it is your activity that moves the plot forward.

    For the games on your list, story merely serves to provide a motivation for the abstract mechanical task. e.g., the pigs kidnapped our eggs, this is why we are launching birds at them in a catapult. (Why can’t they fly?) You speak of “balancing” gameplay and story, but maybe the ideal is to integrate them? (Portal is identified as integrating story and gameplay, but that’s really because the cutscene material is played in the background as you shoot holes in walls.)

    As I’ve confessed to not playing much, I might be wrong about most of that.

    In conclusion, I hope this means adventure games will make a comeback.

     
    • Haley L. #

      Adventure games have already been making a comeback, I think–it’s just mostly in Japan. The Ace Attorney series is, at its heart, just an adventure game with some style cues borrowed from “visual novels.” Heck, many visual novels can trace their roots back to adventure games. Indie developers have also been making adventure games in flash and other platforms for a while now. These days the genre is a niche one, but it certainly hasn’t died out.

       
      • Benjamin Ragheb #

        I concede that adventure games were never totally dead; but the niche status means that the new games aren’t nearly as good as the old ones, or easy to discover. (I can find them on Google, but nobody whose opinion I trust has played them and can recommend specific games to me.)

         
        • Timothy J Swann #

          I would say Telltale Games surely had something to do with that – resurrected Sam and Max and Monkey Island, then bringing out Back to the Future (which I’ve just started and is excellent) and Jurassic Park and are buying up rights to all sorts of fun franchises…

           
  4. Steven #

    If you want adventure games, just watch developer Telltale Games. They are responsible for the Sam and Max games, (which are hilarious!), a Monkey Island game, and a surprisingly enjoyable Back to the Future game. These are all 5 part series, and that could be an interesting point. What makes the game’s story continue, as Benjamin said, are your actions, but the plot is what makes you keep playing, and from a marketing standpoint, that’s the exact balance you want. The player feels like they are in control of the vast to chincy plotlines, through dialogue trees, and using items, and the balance is that the plot is important to the game, by renewing the player’s interest in what is happening, and the control of the player, and the thinning out of cutscenes, makes the player feel more immersed in the work, and feel like they are the character, which is crucial to the enjoyment of the videogame. Many times I blurt out, “So now I have to complete task a to get to task b”. I am doing it myself. It isn’t just me who is controlling Mario or Guybrush Threepwood, I am Mario or Guybrush Threepwood. The importance of suspension of disbelief also comes into play, becuase when you play through something like Uncharted on Play Station 3, you have dialog that happens in game, and then cutscenes. If the game is really good, the difference won’t bother you, but what takes me out of it, is the flash to a black screen when a cutscene starts. That starts to get to you after a while. Sometimes you start to think, “Nathan Drake is so screwed!” instead of “I am so screwed!”. This brings the argument, is the importance of the plot relative in anyway to it’s involvement in the actual gameplay? I think not, becuase something plot-less, like Mario, or Angry Birds, the plot is delivered in cutscenes only. The gameplay is gameplay, and the narrative devices are narrative devices. There is no suspension of disbelief, because there is nothing to suspend it from. Now think about a couple of PS3 flagship games. LittleBig Planet, and InFamous. LittleBig Planet pits you as a one of a million of a kind Sackperson in a Mario-esque adventure with little plot (In the sequel, cutscenes are added, but the plot still lacks). The relativity of in-game story to the plot is none. There isn’t enough plot to base on and deliver in-game story. It is actually delivered all in game, though it isn’t crucial to the gameplay. InFamous however, divvys up the story between nice comic book style vignettes and in-game story. In this case, the plot is overly-important to the story, and requires completion of each level to move on. The plot is split 50-50 between cutscene and in-game, but the most important stuff is lumped into cutscenes. So the importance of in-game plot delivery is not actually important to the actual plot, and story development, because nothing interesting or important can be delivered while retaining character control.

     
    • Timothy J Swann #

      Hey, didn’t read your comment before posting mine, sorry! Thinking of LBP, did you play Little Big Adventure? It lay somewhere between Adventure, RPG, Action and Platformer, and I think such cross-genre games are less common now…

       
  5. Kit K. #

    *requisite joke about how Xenosaga rates a 10 on the Plot Scale*

    I think one thing that the plot scale doesn’t well take into account is the way that plot can easily be woven into the setting, and can also easily not be noticed if you aren’t looking for it, or at least aren’t thinking about it. Take Portal as an example. A lot of the hidey holes containing “The cake is a lie” jokes and other things that help reveal the “plot” of Portal, aren’t actually necessary to the game portion of Portal. To fully discover the “plot”, or rather setting, of Portal, you have to wander around, and find the hidey holes.

     
  6. Kenley #

    Just a little question.

    Technically, majority of social games like Farmville or Millionaire are RPGs(or do I have a different idea of an RPG). They don’t seem to look like category 7. They seem more like 4 or 5. How would you guys categorize social games.

    Another question I’d like to ask is how would you categorize social games as a whole. I think the appeal comes from knowing that your friends are there and you could beg for items. The story seems basic, but adding some social elements might improve the “plot.”

     
    • Haley L. #

      Nah, I think social games are less true RPGs and more like sim games. The experience points and levels they put into social games are usually just to keep people playing.

       
      • Benjamin Ragheb #

        And what purpose do they serve in the “true” RPGs?

         
        • Haley L. #

          Pretty much the same thing. The focus in RPGs generally needs to be more than levels, I think, there should be some sort of “development” of the character, whether that’s the stats of a character, how the player chooses to shape and play their character, or the characters growing through the experiences in the game’s story. (And usually at least 2 out of those 3.)

          A lot of games, particularly online games that use micropayments or subscriptions to earn their money, use “RPG elements” (experience points and levels) these days to invoke a Skinner box effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skinner_box) in the game. That keeps the player in the game and giving money over. I think a bit too many games use that sort of thing these days for anything with experience points and levels to count, there needs to be more to it than that or the genre isn’t really well defined.

           
  7. Tom Houseman #

    Where do Choose-your-own-adventure novels fit into this list? Nine? Nine and a half?
    Also, if they don’t make CYOA’s for kindle, they really should. It’s the only genre that would be more suited for a kindle than a paper edition.

     
      • Tom Houseman #

        Good call, Lee. The comparison to text-based RPG’s is an important one, especially in the context of a discussion about plot-driven video games. Yay me/us/Stokes eighteen months ago!

         
  8. Dan #

    Speaking of text-based adventures – I think they also sort of break this scale. There’s no fast-twitch gameplay at all. On the other hand, the player’s options are limited only by the (admittedly limited) parser, and absolutely nothing at all happens without the players’ input. There’s also no cut scenes. That, or you could argue that EVERYTHING is a short, text-based cut scene.

     
  9. Kenley #

    Maybe we should all define the genres for clarity. Like the different ideas of what an RPG is.

     
  10. Jois #

    In my opinion many “plot heavy” videogames are not so good at plot but are very good at Setting.

    Take a “plot heavy” game like Mass Effect 2, if you analize it in a standard way it’s very disappointing: it got a strong setting and characterization (except for Shepard who is, intentionally, a blank) but a very lacking plot: it never raises above “Save us Shepard, you’re our only hope”, the two main plot twists are given arbitrarely without any chanche for the player to discover them in advance and all the story advancementents are given by an off screen deus ex-machina that simply says: “Now go there and do that”.

    Sure you got a lot of dialogue and some choice but most of the “non action” game time is not spent in advancing the story but in exploring the Setting and the characters backstories.

    Very few games got a strong plot with the proper structure and twists: maybe only adventure games. But we’re talking about videogames so the ability for the player to interact, influence and twist the plot (actively on in reaction of a player choice) is fundamental.

    I think the only game that succeded in doing this was Heavy Rain.

     
  11. LankyChew #

    Just stumbled across this blog the other day at work. Looking forward to reading more of these musings on gaming. Here is my take…

    Seems like the post tends to conflate plot and narrative, or story line. Plot is one aspect of narrative, along with characters, setting, etc.

    The term plot in gaming (events that constitute progress through a game over time) could be used in terms of both gameplay and storyline.

    The Legend of Zelda’s gameplay plot would go something like: I walk toward a hill, I place a bomb by the hill. The bomb explodes. Nothing else happens. I walk toward a forest..

    The storyline, or narrative also has a plot, something like: Link, the princess has been kidnapped. FInd the eight parts of the triforce. Oh, and rescue the princess.

    Or possibly: “Many years ago prince darkness “Gannon” Stole one of the Triforce with power. Princess Zelda had one of the…” and so on.

    Sometimes the two articulate thusly: I the player/ Link must now enter this dungeon in order to find a boomerang. Oh kripes, there are monsters. I must press this button to kill them. Wait a minute.. this isn’t the dungeon with the boomerang… dang.

    And it might be interesting to consider massively multiplayer games like Eve Online, where some narratives (apparently groups of players plot against other groups, there are alliances that fall apart, betrayals of confidence, even heists, con-jobs, aliases… etc.) are entirely player created.

    Or even, umm… Second Life? Is that even a game?